ORLANDO, Fla. — After a year in which Florida's image was bloodied by the brutal murders of several foreign visitors, tourism officials say the last thing the Sunshine State needs to start 1994 is a couple of shooting ranges where the whole family is invited to blast away with everything from a .44-caliber Magnum to an air gun that fires paint balls.
Yet here they are, in the heart of one of the most popular family vacation spots in the United States, boldly luring tourists who have time to kill between trips to nearby Disney World and Universal Studios.
"I enjoy shooting, and this is getting very hard to do in the U.K.," said Kenneth Reid, 32, a tourist from Edinburgh, Scotland. Reid, a funeral director, was preparing to squeeze off a few rounds from a Colt revolver at Quick Shots, one of two shooting galleries that have opened here amid controversy.
"And I think it's safe," Reid said. "My brother and I were deciding between driving those go-carts and coming here, and we decided this was safer."
Both Quick Shots and Shooting Sports opened last month in spite of opposition from city officials and business people who cater to tourists along International Drive, a crowded three-mile canyon of hotels, shops and fast-food franchises.
"Police and businesses have resigned themselves to the fact that they are there," said Joe Mittiga, a spokesman for Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood. "But they are under close scrutiny."
The scrutiny, Mittiga said, is prompted by concerns that renting and selling weapons could promote violence. "The police are watching to see if people are loading guns in their cars, for example," he said.
But another concern is the damage the gun ranges may do to the state's image and its $31-billion annual tourism industry. In the last 15 months, nine foreign tourists have been slain in Florida, and millions of dollars have been spent to counter the impression that a visit here could be fatal.
"We believe these places are totally inappropriate in a family tourist corridor," said Cheryl Taubensee, executive director of the Central Florida Hotel and Motel Assn. "The ranges are not the problem; they may be safe. But it's the fact that we're encouraging violence and sale of guns in a tourist area."
The gun range operators insist that opponents just don't understand. Quick Shots manager Arvind Bissoondath said: "We knew from the beginning there would be objections, but it came down to providing entertainment."
Michael Spielvogel, one of the owners of Shooting Sports, said that only "anti-gun persons or the very narrow-minded" object to the ranges--or to the huge billboard, featuring a picture of a handgun, that his company has erected on busy Interstate 4.
The shooting ranges are proving to be particularly popular with foreign visitors. "Here you have freedom of choice," said Reid, referring to the easy availability of both gun ranges and guns for sale in the United States. "We definitely don't have that at home."
After Quick Shots and Shooting Sports got building permits, Orlando changed its zoning laws to block any more ranges from opening.
"On the heels of some tragic shootings, and tourism industry complaints, we don't need more," Mittiga said. "And we doubt that a shooting range is an incentive for coming to Orlando."
Spielvogel, for one, says he sees nationwide franchise potential in family-atmosphere gun ranges, with special appeal to foreign visitors.
"The tourist people are shooting themselves in the foot by making statements about what they see as a problem with shooting ranges," Spielvogel said. "Tourists are coming to us in droves, happy to find an alternative to Mickey Mouse."
The average Quick Shots customer spends $25 to $40 to rent a handgun and a lane, and to buy targets of a human silhouette and a box or two of ammunition, Bissoondath said. In a separate range, minors can shoot paint balls at moving targets.
Before renting a Magnum, a 9-millimeter Glock or a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson at Quick Shots, customers must fill out a form that asks, among other questions: Are you a fugitive from justice? Are you an unlawful user, or addicted, to narcotics? Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective?
No one has ever answered yes to any of those questions. And Bissoondath is not surprised. "The people who do the killing, they use illegal guns, and they don't come to the range to practice. This is fun and safe."
Mittiga remains unconvinced. "The way the city looks at it, a shooting range is not an attraction, it's a place where you go to hone a skill in an activity that involves an element of danger and expertise. It is not an alternative to putt-putt golf."