No Texas city seems to openly embrace its vices as readily as Houston. In a town known for its lack of portion control, you can find a 24-hour restaurant serving forty varieties of pies and more fast food restaurants than any other city in the nation. If adult entertainment is your indulgence of choice, the city’s famous strip clubs—housed in multilevel warehouses that take up entire city blocks, with numerous stages and cafeteria-style buffets—are a world unto themselves. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the city has leaned into another pastime regarded as transgressive in most other cities: the firing of high-powered guns better suited to military operations than to hunting or target shooting. While driving on Loop 610 just outside the Galleria, tens of thousands of Houstonians each day pass by a massive, bright red advertisement for an activity you’re unlikely to encounter in the bustling hearts of most urban environments: fully automatic machine gun rentals for $40 plus cost of ammunition. 

Top Gun Range, a fifteen-lane indoor shooting facility that sells guns and rents them, is located about two miles west of the signage, in a gray warehouse tucked among apartment buildings, a Nigerian restaurant, and a wholesale liquor business. Managers say the brightly colored advertisement—arguably one of the state’s most arresting—is just as effective today as it was when it was erected in 2019, largely because of its simplicity. The photo captures a ponytailed woman lying on her stomach and looking down the barrel of a military-style machine gun, a chain of gold bullets draped around her waist, her legs anchored by a giant pair of cowboy boots. Below, the phrase “$40 machine gun rentals” is stamped across the billboard in large block letters without further explanation. “It’s so eye-catching it’s hard to replace it with a new copy,” Kyle Harrison, the range’s general manager, told me. 

Top Gun Range has fully embraced its role as a purveyor of experiences that are limited to conflict zones in most parts of the world, including in Texas, where the purchase of fully automatic machine guns—as opposed to semiautomatic assault rifles such as AR-15s—is tightly regulated. (Full automatics fire continually as long as the trigger is held; semiautomatics only fire once for each pull of the trigger.) Each month, Top Gun’s ads and word of mouth bring in hundreds of customers, Harrison told me. When a potential customer calls the business and is placed on hold, she hears not Muzak but instead a recording of the staccato cracks of automatic weapons. Renting a machine gun there only requires being of legal age to sign an online waiver and handing over a driver’s license—as well as taking an introductory class if needed—before strapping on a pair of earmuffs and protective eyewear. (Minors need to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.) Inside, a large portion of the business’s front room has been converted into a suburban Texas man cave, complete with comfy leather furniture arranged around a big-screen TV that hangs above a fireplace. Mounted deer heads stare down from one wall, and a row of arcade games lines another.  

As novel as they might sound to non–gun owners, machine gun rentals are not a new phenomenon. In recent decades, gun sellers have used them as a marketing gimmick to get new customers in the door, particularly in cities with large numbers of international travelers and tourists, such as Las Vegas and Houston.

In the last year after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas has done nothing to make it more difficult to obtain weapons designed as killing machines. As of September 2021, Texans have been able to carry handguns without a permit. Assuming a buyer doesn’t have a felony conviction or certain misdemeanor convictions, the state’s only restrictions on purchases of semiautomatic weapons are age (buyers must be at least eighteen) and money (the guns typically cost between $500 and $2,000). Meanwhile, machine gun rental facilities such as Top Gun have proliferated across the state, often marketing themselves as video game experiences come to life. They’ve flown under the radar and seem to be far less controversial than the video games their experiences are modeled on, which politicians such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick frequently blame for mass killings. 

Rental facilities offer rare access to fully automatic weapons. When they’re not being fired on a battlefield, such weapons are tightly regulated and require extensive background checks and special licensing to purchase. “Those fully automatic guns you see in the movies are rare in society because they’re quite hard to get a hold of,” said Ryan Busse, a onetime firearms-manufacturer executive who now works as a senior advisor at Giffords, a gun-safety group founded by former congresswoman and gun-violence survivor Gabby Giffords. “That’s what piques the curiosity of out-of-country tourists, particularly those from East Asian countries like Singapore and South Korea, where civilian gun ownership is heavily restricted. They come to places like Texas and Nevada and they’re like, ‘Holy s—, you people can shoot machine guns in this country?’ ”

In recent years, many Texas shooting ranges have mastered the art of marketing on Instagram, uploading streams of images of rare guns, instructional videos, and often the same sorts of playful, humorous skits and dances found on TikTok. At Top Gun Range, for example, the business has installed a branded backdrop in front of which customers can pose for photos with machine guns. Instructors also offer to take slow-motion videos of patrons firing machine guns from multiple angles, free of charge. When they make their way to Instagram, the videos are often set to music and begin with close-ups of the guns before breaking into slow-motion, Rambo-style shots of customers unloading fully automatic weapons as shell casings fly and white swirls of smoke fill the air. The guns are not presented as killing machines or even dangerous tools; they’re symbolic extensions of an exhilarating lifestyle rooted in independence, self-reliance, and general badassery. 

That’s certainly the case at Texas Gun Experience in Grapevine, a city twenty miles northwest of Dallas, where shooters of all experience levels are welcome. The family-run gun seller, which has been in operation for more than three decades, markets its $250 “gamer” package by enthusiastically blurring reality and simulated fantasy, encouraging customers to “step into your own first-person shooter and become legend.” Whether you’re a fan of Black Ops, Elden Ring, Modern Warfare, or Mortal Kombat, the website notes, “Texas Gun Experience can make your virtual life a reality with the opportunity to shoot some of the most iconic video game guns.” On the website, amid images of rentable machine guns and lists of movies in which the weapons have appeared, would-be shooters can compare statistics about each gun, such as its caliber, magazine capacity, and maximum rate of fire. On “full auto Fridays,” the range offers customers discounted access to four different machine guns for the entire day. 

Seven hours south, at Ox Ranch, located about thirty miles northwest of Uvalde, machine gun rentals are presented on an extensive menu that groups weapons by the wars in which they were used. Following in the footsteps of your Army veteran grandfather, you can rent a Browning .50-caliber machine gun—informally known as “Ma Deuce”—and fire it from atop a real-life Sherman tank, the same iconic vehicle that helped the Allies bring Nazi Germany to its knees at the end of World War II. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can add a Vietnam-era flamethrower to your arsenal for an extra $350. “Blow up a pyramid of watermelons, a car, and much more!” the ranch’s website urges. “We would love to hear your crazy idea and make it a reality!”

Who is drawn to rent a machine gun? There is no prototypical customer at Top Gun Range, my instructor, Troy Hatch, a 32-year-old Houstonian with a passion for big guns, told me when I stopped by earlier this month. Though regular customers are as varied and diverse as Houston itself, the machine gun rentals do draw two outside groups consistently. The first are tourists from blue states such as California, New Jersey, and New York who are hungry for the kind of raw, full-throttle shooting experience they can’t get back home. The second group—echoing Busse’s assessment—are international visitors who stop by after a day of upscale shopping at the Galleria and are seeking a novel experience they associate with Texas mythology. “We’re also popular with flight crews from the Middle East and Asia,” Hatch said. “When they have a layover in Houston, they want to do two things: eat great food and shoot machine guns.”

After driving by the Top Gun poster in Houston, I decided to give the range a test. Upon entry, I was taken aback by the imposing wall of around thirty matte-black machine guns from around the world. Anxiously contemplating what I’d gotten myself into and uncertain how to decide among the weapons, I asked Hatch to choose for me. He was adept at translating weapons vernacular into ordinary English. Hatch assured me that my nervousness was common, and he opted to give me some of the range’s most popular weapons, the kind of weapons, he said, most customers recognize from video games such as Fortnite—an AR-15, an M16 rifle, an Uzi submachine gun, and a belt-fed HK23, a lightweight West German machine gun developed in the early 1970s. Were it not being repaired, Hatch told me I could’ve tried out a Browning 1919A4, a 308-gauge belt-fed machine gun that soldiers might have encountered on a battlefield nearly a century ago. “This is that Rambo, Arnold Schwarzenegger gun,” Hatch said, repeatedly lifting the imposing, thirty-pound weapon like an Olympic curl bar. “This thing will shake the wall; it’s a beast!”

My shooting experience lasted about thirty minutes. Despite my initial anxiety, I grew more and more comfortable each time I picked up a new weapon. By the time I reached my third gun, my brow was sweaty and my heart was pounding, but I’d grown accustomed to consistently hitting my target’s torso, ten yards away. I was able to move seamlessly from single-action to automatic fire, holding tight as bullet casings bounced off my forehead and smoke filled my nostrils. 

Each time I pulled the trigger, even on those rifles small enough to be folded up and carried inside a backpack, the brute force unleashed was shocking. Two hundred and sixty rounds of controlled chaos later, I’d racked up a $300 bill—“a light day,” as Hatch labeled it. “I have some customers who come in here and drop thirteen hundred dollars in a single session, especially if they’re part of a larger group,” he added. 

When asked what customers take away from shooting machine guns, Harrison, the range’s manager, invoked a larger, public-spirited mission: “to share our love of shooting with the world.” Some customers are adrenaline junkies checking a weapon off a bucket list, he noted; others are history or technology buffs who want to experience a gun they’ve read about over the years. More women have been coming to the range recently, Harrison said, mostly because they’re interested in self-defense. Other customers walk through the front door in search of something less identifiable, a feeling of release they can’t easily find elsewhere. “A lot of our customers have high-stress jobs,” Hatch explained. “They shoot a couple hundred rounds and compare it to therapy. They tell me it’s better than therapy, actually, and cheaper, too.”

Busse, the former firearms executive, believes machine gun rentals reveal something troubling about what our culture has normalized. “They point to the fact that in the United States the balance between responsibility and freedom is out of whack,” he said. “If it’s this much of a curiosity for people from other countries, if it’s become this sort of fetishized tourism, that should tell us something.”

Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I needed a few minutes to slow my breathing and move beyond the strange feeling of a phantom rifle pressed against my shoulder. When I turned on the vehicle, I was struck by how pathetic the rev of the engine sounded after firing a machine gun. I had a new appreciation for machine guns. I was also more terrified by the idea of encountering one in public than I ever have been.