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Foreign visitors drawn to isles' shooting ranges

Some Japanese see guns as a fun tourist attraction to enjoy along with the beach

By New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 11:55 a.m. HST, Jan 3, 2014

Kenji and Hiromasa Ozawa, a father and son vacationing on Oahu, spent Christmas morning hiking up Diamond Head.

Their next stop: the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club — an indoor shooting range nestled in an upscale shopping center just above Cartier and Hermes stores at Royal Hawaiian Center — where they fired off several dozen rounds between them.

"We love shooting guns, I love shooting guns," said Kenji Ozawa, 52, who was visiting from Chiba, Japan. "It's a very exciting experience."

Japan boasts among the most restrictive gun laws in the world, especially compared with the U.S. Japan's 1958 Firearms and Swords Control Law prohibits its citizens from owning most firearms; some guns — like shotguns for hunting, air guns, and guns for competition — are allowed, but the Japa­nese still must undergo a series of comprehensive tests, as well as a thorough background check.

So for some Japa­nese tourists like the Ozawas, an ideal Hawaii getaway includes sun, surf and semiautomatics.

"We can't fire guns in Japan. We are prohibited from having them," the elder Ozawa explained before summarizing the Second Amendment's right to bear arms and adding, "This is the America I know."

Though the Japa­nese do not necessarily travel to Hawaii, a roughly seven-hour flight from their own island, for the sole purpose of hitting Wai­kiki's gun clubs, those with an interest in, say, Berettas often treat shooting a bit like surfing — as a fun tourist attraction to take advantage of while visiting the U.S.

"In most countries mass media does make guns desirable, and that's the same in Japan," said Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney School of Public Health and a specialist in firearm injury prevention. Hawaii, he said, is "right at sort of the satellite hub of what exists of Japan's gun culture."

Taka Maruyama, 52, of Tokyo was leaving the SWAT Gun Club here on a recent Tuesday afternoon with two of his sons and explained, "We just come here for swimming and golf and shooting." Gesturing at his 17-year-old-son, Tomo, who was proudly holding a paper target riddled with bullets near the bull's-eye, Maru­yama laughed and said, "Every time he visits somewhere, he shoots. He's a professional shooter."

There are at least four private gun clubs within a half-mile of one another in Waikiki, and a public shooting range in Hawaii Kai. The clubs advertise with posters (in both English and Japa­nese) in the ritzy malls, and they hire men to pass out fliers (in English and Japa­nese) along the busy sidewalks of Waikiki Beach.

Jeff Tarumi, range manager at the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club, estimates that 90 percent of his customers are foreign, with the majority hailing from Japan. He said that all of the club's employees are required to speak at least a little Japa­nese.

"Believe it or not, knowledge of guns is not as important, because you can train them on the job, but you have to speak Japa­nese," Tarumi said. "The U.S. market is a little harder because people come in here and say, ‘Well, I can shoot for free in my backyard.'"

The clubs, in which visitors can shoot everything from AK-47s to 9 mm Glocks, prove especially alluring to Japa­nese tourists, who often have seen guns in movies and on television but cannot shoot them at home.

David B. Kopel — author of "The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?" — said, "The only law-abiding citizens in Japan who own guns are very highly motivated sportsmen." He added, "Handguns and rifles are basically banned."

In 2012 nearly 1.5 million Japa­nese visited Hawaii, making them third in total visitor expenditures and visitor days, according to an annual report by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"How many people would come to Hawaii and end up going to the gun clubs? Tens of thousands," said Harvey F. Gerwig, president of the Hawaii Rifle Association. "It's a huge draw."

Hawaii is hardly the Wild West of firearms. The state has stricter gun regulations than many mainland counterparts, and was given a B+ for its gun laws by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The gun clubs all provide instructors trained in basic gun safety; eye and ear protection; and will not allow people who have been drinking onto shooting ranges.

But especially compared with Japan, visiting gun clubs here is still relatively easy, and the Japa­nese are not the only ones adding an hour or two at the shooting range to their vacation itineraries. Tourists from other countries with more stringent gun regulations — like Australia, Canada and New Zealand — can also be found in Wai­kiki's gun clubs, where basic packages run as low as $25. A midrange option at the Hawaii Gun Club — a total of five guns with 52 shots — costs about $70.

Last week Marcia Murphy, 58, and Bethany Parr, 38, a mother and daughter vacationing in Hawaii from Australia, had treated themselves to manicures and pedicures before heading to the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club.

"I've never ever touched a gun in my life before," Murphy said, still exhilarated after learning that she was a deft sharpshooter for a novice.

Parr was equally enthusiastic. "It was a total high," she said.

The two had shot six guns and done quite well, though Murphy had hit slightly more of her targets than Parr.

Turning to her daughter, Murphy could not help but gloat. "I'm going to rub it in, dear," she said with a smile.

Ozawa was similarly complimentary as he left the range. "We are enjoying America," he said.


Ashley Parker, New York Times

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