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Private combat training schools proliferate Print

Advanced weapons training for civilians has little oversight.

By David A. Fahrenthold - THE WASHINGTON POST - June 10, 2006

MONTROSE, Colo. — Marcus Klintmalm's two victims lay sprawled on the ground, their weapons released by hands gone limp. Spent cartridge casings, his and theirs, were everywhere — testimony to two gunfights.

The shooting had stopped. It was time to debrief.

"Where did you hit him?" an instructor asked Klintmalm, referring to one of the assailants. The man was standing now, with a mark of orange wax from Klintmalm's "bullet" on his pants. In the hip," Klintmalm said. f the fight had been real, that might not have been good enough, the instructor said. "He may not be dead."

Such are the hard-edged lessons taught at Valhalla Training Center, where students learn the basics of urban shootouts in a mock downtown. Special Forces soldiers train here for combat in Iraq, but Klintmalm is not a soldier: He is a 23-year-old aspiring business-school student from Dallas, who gave his current occupation as "ski bumming."

Valhalla is part of a lightly regulated industry thriving in a time of war overseas and terrorism fears at home. Around the country, at least 16 privately run schools teach civilian students skills usually associated with SWAT teams or military combat — close-in gunfighting, sniper shooting.

The reasons for the schools' growth include the U.S. military's increasing openness to privately run training, a rise in public demand for personal-defense skills and a new marketing strategy from some schools, which now sell tactical shooting as weekend recreation.

Along with this growth have come concerns, voiced by academic observers and even some in the business, about the leeway afforded these schools to choose whom and what they teach.

"You're talking about an entirely new industry that has a patchwork-quilt quality. . . . Some parts are regulated, and some parts are entirely unregulated," said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Singer said that such a system would be "one thing if we're talking about clown schools," but "it's different when we're talking about private military schools."

The schools, however, say that they strive to screen out clients who might misuse their training.

"They don't show up for class and have a gun in their hand until they've had a criminal background check," said Timothy Beckman, director of the training arm of the High Desert Special Operations Center in Nevada.

A survey by The Washington Post of schools that advertise on the Internet and in gun magazines located 19 that offer advanced instruction in the skills of combat, with two more such centers planned in New Hampshire and Oklahoma. Of these, only three said they limited the teaching of advanced skills to military and police clients.

One thing shared across the industry was a sense that people want what they are selling.

"Our business has increased since September 11, period. People realize since September 11 that they need to be more prepared," said Jane Anne Hulen, marketing director of Gunsite Academy, a school in the Arizona desert that is one of the industry's heavyweights. She said Gunsite's business, which now involves about 1,000 students per year, has at least doubled since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

One engine of the industry's rapid growth is the wartime U.S. military. Private weapons schools now teach thousands of Navy sailors to defend their ships from terrorist attacks, and they put Special Forces soldiers through simulated combat in Middle East villages.

But these days, the schools have an equally big business in teaching civilians. With customers looking for defensive skills or recreation, the industry buzzword is the same one that puts the T in "SWAT."

"This is not a shooting school. It's a school for tactics," meaning the total set of skills useful in actual gunfighting, said Rob Pincus, director of shooting operations at Valhalla.

Some gun instructors have questioned whether such classes make civilian students too aggressive with their guns in real life, and many schools provide civilians with training that would seem to have few, if any, applications in everyday life.

At least seven of the 16 schools teach the use of military-style assault weapons. Some schools say they teach only target shooting using these guns, but at Front Sight Firearms Training Institute outside Las Vegas, there are classes in both the M-16 rifle and the Uzi submachine gun that include tactical simulations and lessons in how to use the guns in "full auto" mode.

At least six of the schools teach civilians how to fire a rifle accurately over long distances. Some focus on hunting or target-shooting skills only.

But not all do: West Virginia's Storm Mountain Training Center offers a class that includes training in "sniper mission planning" and the chance to fire live shots as part of simulated tactical missions, according to the school's Web site.

Storm Mountain accepts U.S. citizens who pass a criminal background check and a physical fitness test, Rod Ryan, the school's vice president of operations, said in an e-mail message. At Front Sight, students must pass a criminal background check, sign a "Statement of No Criminal Record, Mental Illness, or Substance Abuse" and provide a character witness who has known them for at least five years, said the school's founder and director, Ignatius Piazza.

Although some schools limit their training to executive bodyguards or security contractors headed for Iraq or Afghanistan, the most common approach seems to be a combination of background checks and character witnesses.

One voice absent from the debate is the federal government's. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which licenses gun dealers, has no similar monitoring for weapons trainers. State-level oversight is also largely absent, school officials said.

Some anti-violence activists and even a few weapons-school officials say that somebody ought to set out rules for acceptable training and students.

"I don't think this should be taught to just anybody off the street," said Richard Weaver of ArmorGroup International PLC, which has camps in Virginia and San Antonio.

But no such limitations seem to be on the horizon. Instead, many schools are seeking to expand their civilian clientele by embracing the idea of gunfighting as entertainment. The Valhalla Training Center, for instance, already shares space with the Valhalla Shooting Club, which allows clients to live out James Bond-style fantasies such as taking down assailants in an airplane cabin or shooting their way out of a crowded subway station.

Later this year, Jack Randal, a gun trainer in Oklahoma, plans to create an $11 million "Tulsa Adventure Center" that will have a climbing wall, a scuba pool and a shoothouse. Randal says he thinks his industry is ripe for the kind of transition into big-box prominence that the fishing-tackle industry achieved a few years ago.

"We're taking the mom-and-pop bait shop," Randal said, "and we're turning it into the Bass Pro Shop." 

 
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