"Look!" pointed out the sister of the bride. "Your ear protection matches your dress."
It was a tender family moment punctuated by loud gunfire. Crimson red rose pedals fluttered on the floor of the chapel, converted from the room normally used for gun cleaning. The ordained minister addressed the young couple with a pistol secured in his hip holster: "Do you Jeff take Sandra* to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, to love and cherish this day forward til death do you part?"
The last few words were muffled by the spray of machine gun fire, popping from the shooting range located in the next room. Gunpowder stung my nostrils.
We were at the Gun Store in Las Vegas, the first establishment to offer literal "shotgun weddings." Couples are wed inside the gun range's weaponry outlet and then seal their vows by firing off AK-47s, Uzis, or MP5 submachine guns. The only thing that could make these nuptials more emblematically American would be the baby Jesus conducting the ceremony himself.
"It's loud. They duck sometimes," said Emily Couture, who came up with the idea back in 2011. Couture had been working as the media contact at the gun range before she approached her boss and suggested the idea of using the place as a wedding venue. "He looked at me like I was a crazy person," she remembered.
But Couture had a feeling, so she got ordained and became a marriage officiant herself. In 2012, the Gun Store held their first wedding.
"We let them get married down range where the guns were shot. And then they actually got to shoot downrange where they just got married 20 minutes earlier."
It's no mistake that this all takes place in an anything-goes town like Vegas (which also happens to be the wedding capital of the world). Couture has a laissez-faire approach to the whole thing: "If they want to get married at a gun range holding a big fat Uzi, far be it for me to keep them from it."
The Gun Store's $500 wedding package includes use of the venue, the ceremony, legal paperwork, a gift bag, and VIP shooting range access, with five blasts on a shotgun for both bride and groom. They also offer a $450 package for renewing vows.
On average, they conduct five weddings per month. Recently, Couture administered her very first same-sex marriage, now that it's legal in Nevada. The couple were Las Vegas locals who were thrilled to legally express their love with a weapon involved.
Many of the Gun Store's couples come from the UK and Canada rather than the United States—tourists looking to embrace America's freewheeling gun culture, and take part in the gun-range-turned-wedding-chapel that isn't available within their countries' borders.
Strangely—and perhaps disturbingly—wedding bookings tend to increase after shooting-related tragedies, according to Aaron Dickson, the Gun Store's concierge coordinator. After the Sandy Hook massacre, not a single wedding was cancelled.
The weekend I visited the Gun Store, the weaponry outlet was decked out for the wedding of a couple from Canada. The pair had been together for 12 years—and they were finally ready to romantically lock and load.
"Out of the three weddings I've done, two of them have ended in tears," whispered a woman in the back of the room, who was in charge of cueing the ceremony music. Those tears weren't from a stray bullet shell flying into someone's eye, she said—they were from the flood of emotion that one can only feel when getting married at a gun range.
The wedding party of eight arrived in formal attire—sharp suits for the men and long black dresses for the ladies. Family members took position on grey foldout chairs. A flowered trellis, resting on a makeshift stage, was flanked by a mounted Uzi and Tommy gun.
Then, as classical music streamed through a CD player, the lovely bride, adorned in a long, flowing dress, entered. A hush fells over the room, while the barrage of gunfire erupted from the next room: POP-POP-POP!
Besides the artillery, it was more or less a traditional ceremony: Kisses, claps, tears, gunfire, and more gunfire. Then the mother of the bride cried tears of joy.
"Will you hold my flowers?" asked the bride, exchanging her bouquet for an assault weapon. She and her new husband took photos under the wedding trellis while holding an Uzi and Tommy gun, respectively. Their parents took turns cradling an AK-47, making for the strangest family wedding photo I've ever seen.
With the ceremony complete, eye and ear protection were dispersed among the formally-clad wedding party. They moved down the hall, past a range of shooters, to the specialty VIP shooting range adorned with marble floors. Here, the couple would consummate their marriage with a bang.
The Gun Store staff laid out ground rules: The newlyweds aren't allowed to throw the bouquet in the air and riddle it with bullets (though this is often requested). "We'll definitely hang up your bouquet and you can shoot that downrange," Couture explained. "You can shoot whatever you want."
The range master, who lingered nearby like an attentive waiter, loaded the weapons and brought the husband and wife an array of firearms. Though the selection was broad, for an additional $370, the Gun Store also offers an upgraded service— the Mr. & Mrs. Smith & Wesson package—with "more guns, ammunition, and targets" for the truly gun-crazy couple.
The Gun Store is pretty much open to any type of weaponry-themed wedding. One couple who held a "redneck wedding." The only thing not allowed is a real shotgun wedding: Pregnant bride aren't allowed to shoot because of the sound reverberations from a MP-40 can negatively effect the unborn child.
"The weirdest phone call I've gotten is a request to do a nudist wedding, which we're down with," Couture said. "They could have a full nudist wedding and shoot nude." Though unlike ear and eye protection, the Gun Store doesn't supply genital protection for nude newlyweds, so "if brass that flies and melts them and burns them, that's on them."
And if the love happens to go flat, the Gun Store also hosts Divorce Parties. Couture recalled one group of women who showed up dressed in black on the day a divorce was finalized. "They came in and had pictures of her ex that they took out of the frame—it was a contest to see who could shoot pictures of the ex-husband. We don't encourage that."
Afterwards, when the divorcée saw the bullet-riddled photos of her former husband's face, she remarked: "Wow, that's cheaper than therapy." And, I might add, less time-consuming than prison.
Not everyone is in support of the gun-wielding ceremonies. "Responsible gun owners appreciate the risks of having a gun," says Jonathan Hutson spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "They don't treat a gun casually like a party favor."
To love guns enough to include them in your wedding vows is a problem with our culture, according to Ladd Everitt, the communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, DC. "We live in a society where a certain subset of gun owners fetishize firearms, talking them as something akin to religious idols," he said. "There is a strong spiritual element here, where commonly embraced maxims of faith, 'Thou shalt not kill,' 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me,' are rejected outright. The gun culture takes great pride in ignoring the risks posed by firearms, and embraces the suffering they cause: 'That's the price of liberty.' Some might describe this philosophy as nihilism."
As we watched the bullets fly at the Gun Store, I turned to the sister of the bride. "What did you think when you heard your sister was getting married at a gun range?"
"I was a little bit surprised," she admitted. "I was like, Why not? It's definitely original."
The bride fired her Benelli; the wedding party cringed with each passing shot. My teeth hurt from the loud blasts.
"Don't worry," she said to the wedding party, "you guys will get your turn."
The range master suggested that she and the groom share a shooting lane "to start off the marriage appropriately—you guys get to start sharing right away." The happy newlyweds moved together to demolish Nazi zombies (the most popular target for newlyweds) with semi-automatic shotguns, then with the pistols and Uzis. The bride, looking angelic in her flowing wedding dress, firmly held her AK47.
"All right, it's legal now," said the groom after blasting away the final target.
Afterwards, the couple seemed pumped with adrenaline from firing. "Everyone we know says they wished they would have done it," the groom said. "Weddings were never a huge deal for us, that's why it probably took us 12 years. It just seemed like an original thing. It was pretty funny."
I asked them how this set the tone for their new life together.
"Hopefully, it's not as violent as it is today," said the bride, laughing. "It's a good way to start and loosen up. It was pretty unique."
Couture says that couples who come here are more trusting, since it takes confidence in another person to let them shoot a gun near you. As she puts it, "the couple that shoots together stays together."
It might be true—as long as these marriages never end the same way they begin.
* The bride and groom's last name was excluded for privacy reasons.
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