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Published April 16. 2022 9: 12PM | Updated April 16. 2022 9: 22PM
By Elizabeth Regan
Day staff writer
East Lyme — A trio of local businessmen are deconstructing the firearms training process.
Facsimile handguns, rifles and shotguns that will be used when Viking Firearms and Training opens its doors in roughly 45 days have had the firing mechanisms replaced with laser technology to point at a screen.
East Lyme Police Department Detective Mark J. Comeau, Niantic Sportsman Club President Matthew Fleisher and local businessman Jas Awla are planning a sprawling, 40,000-square-foot virtual shooting facility where Bob's Discount Furniture used to be.
The relatively new virtual gun range phenomenon started emerging over the last couple of years, with Viking Firearms and Training claiming the largest and most sophisticated operation in the area.
Construction is slated to begin next week on 16 range ports with 8-by-12-foot screens, according to Comeau and Fleisher. There will be training space for de-escalation simulations focused on reducing the use of force among police officers. There'll be a VIP room, cafeteria, retail shop and seminar space.
There's also opposition from those who believe firearms and entertainment don't mix.
Comeau said the sign at the entrance to the property was defaced with the spray-painted message "the system is broken" shortly after the Zoning Commission gave the go-ahead for the project back in November.
The commission approved a special permit for the facility in a 4-1 vote with little discussion. The move came after a 2½-hour public hearing during which opponents expressed concerns about contributing to a culture of gun violence. They criticized the decision to name the virtual gun range after the high school mascot and to place the business in proximity to two schools.
Proponents said proper gun safety training is enhanced by computer simulation, much like flight training. They argued it would fill a need for range time among law enforcement officers, as well as provide an outlet for friendly competition that would be cheaper and have less of an impact on the environment than live shooting.
On a Saturday tour of the 15 Industrial Park Road site, Comeau and Fleisher said the retail shop will include items like gun safes and holsters — but not live guns.
"We're not going to sell firearms," Fleisher said.
Comeau put it this way: "We could, but we're not going to. That's not what our goal is. Our goal is education, teaching."
They also said they will not sell alcohol because it doesn't fit with their mission to educate new gun owners.
"We can, but we opt not to because we cannot introduce alcohol and firearms," Comeau said. "They just don't mix."
Customers must be at least 16 years old or accompanied by an adult. The decision to allow young adults unfettered access was a source of concern for some at the Zoning Commission public hearing, who argued young people are not mature enough to process the gravity of the responsibility and who are more prone to addictive and reckless behavior.
Comeau emphasized there will be no live firearms allowed in the facility. He said there will be two metal detectors at the front doors to identify those carrying a gun or ammunition. It's a departure from a plan described at the public hearing that indicated customers with their own guns would be able to put them in a lock box in the front lobby.
'Shoot, don't shoot'
Comeau on Saturday demonstrated the inert facsimile of a Glock handgun with no blowback.
"All this fires is an infrared pulse of laser," he said, pulling the trigger to release a soundless flash of red light. "Done. Super safe."
A second option uses a magazine filled with carbon dioxide to simulate recoil.
The owners said the realistic but safe facsimiles allow people to practice their grip, trigger control, aim and other skills – including ones that can't be honed in a traditional gun range.
"You can practice holstering and unholstering," Comeau said. "You can't do that in any range with live-fire guns. That's a big no-no."
People can bring up simulated scenarios ranging from outdoor target shooting to indoor battles, where they're called to shoot shadowy, formless "bad guys" in silhouette while avoiding silhouettes with graphical hands held up to represent the "good guys."
Human targets are reserved for the de-escalation room as part of what the owners describe as "judgmental" or "shoot, don't shoot" training directed at law enforcement and military personnel, the owners said. The expansive warehouse space with a loading dock door will be equipped with a 120-degree screen for a more immersive experience.
There are about 800 available titles that encompass thousands of scenarios, according to Fleisher. He said the software also has implications for civilians who might gain a new respect for law enforcement officers by being challenged with the same kind of decisions police have to make.
"We can put you in a situation that can make you sweat," he said. "You need to make an instant decision that can take somebody's life. It's no joke. It's the real deal."
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