Beirut Club Gives Guns a Sporting Chance

For Lebanon, the moving targets could not be more appropriate. At the flick of a switch, cutouts of thugs with guns whip around to face you, clutching their hostage with an arm locked around the neck. A woman in racy clothes is held captive, pleading for help; a man runs with his captive, tempting you to shoot.

The targets are dispatched only by expertly aimed shots.

In a country that is finally beginning to emerge from 15 years of civil war - during which more than a dozen Americans and other Westerners taken hostage by extremist Islamist groups featured prominently - the term "sport shooting" may seem to be an oxymoron.

But here, on what was once the second line of defense for Christian East Beirut - the capital's "green line" - a club has emerged that aims to channel Lebanon's obsession with guns into sport.

Twenty-two indoor pistol-shooting lanes have been dug underground in a state-of-the-art setup for competition shooting. An American firm designed the galleries, which are insulated to reduce noise and are separated by Kevlar and bulletproof glass.

An initial order for 150 pistols and 1 million rounds of ammunition is just the start. "Officially, you can't own a gun in Lebanon," says Maj. Wadih Faris, director of The Magnum Club - also known as the Middle East Center for Sport Shooting - which opened this fall.

"During the war, 300,000 guns were coming into the country each month. We have more guns in our houses than you [Americans] have TVs in yours," he says.

Financed by a wealthy Lebanese gun enthusiast, The Magnum Club is trying to change the way the Lebanese think about and use their weapons. Former militiamen who fought in the war are not particularly welcome, unless they conform to the club's guidelines.

"After the war, everybody carried guns and thought they could shoot whatever they liked," says Abdo Wazen, the club's professional instructor.

The club is trying to change that mind-set, however. A brochure shows a smiley face formed by three bullet holes on a yellow target, and reads: "Point your gun in a safe direction."

Interest has grown, with groups of Lebanese Army officers and even Russian diplomats testing their aim.

Guns can be borrowed from the club and ammunition bought in-house. But most customers use their own hardware.

Despite the popularity of moving hostage targets, the primary aim is to create competition shooters.

"This is not directed at people who have itchy trigger fingers after the war," says Major Faris. "We are developing the concept of sport shooting, trying to create champion shooters. We would like to change this from a forbidden activity to a sports way of thinking."

The club is the biggest indoor pistol range among Arab nations in the Middle East. Clients travel from across the region to shoot here.

Although there is much rubble and decay from the civil war outside, "People who come here are often very quiet, intelligent, and of high social status," says Faris.

After a spell in the lanes, shooters can relax with a sauna, steam bath, and massage.

Drinks are served as marksmen settle into the club's plush leather chairs. "We are doing shooting in a noble way," Faris adds, "not burning ammunition."

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