Just sporty fun with guns? New Wickford range aims to win over critics
ARE guns misunderstood? Does handing a replica pistol to a teenager represent education?
For Keith Slater, the owner of the Essex Range, both answers are an unequivocal yes.
With five ranges of varying sizes, obstacles and targets, the Brock Hill Road centre offers people the chance to use airsoft guns in a competitive environment.
But the aim is not just to fire plastic ball bearings at targets, there is also an educational aspect.
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"Ever since guns were banned there has been a misunderstanding behind them all," said Mr Slater.
"I love airsoft, and with this you can turn it into a proper sport."
Airsoft guns are replica firearms that use compressed gas to fire plastic pellets. They are non-lethal and make limited sound.
Mr Slater, from Benfleet, is adamant that a shooting range will help change people's attitudes towards firearms.
"This is not a bunch of people running around shooting each other," he said.
"It is a matter of education. In Asia, Australia and mainland Europe they are all familiar with guns as they are all still legal.
"Here, pistol shooting clubs have to go to Northern Ireland."
Handguns have been banned in Britain since the 1996 Dunblane school massacre, which provoked a public outcry against private gun ownership. Strict UK gun laws mean that even the Great Britain Olympic shooting team must train abroad.
"Once you educate people about guns the fear disappears to a certain extent.
"You realise it is not the gun that is the problem, but the person behind it," continued Mr Slater.
"People are desensitised to what the gun is through playing computer games. They shoot bad guys and if they get hit they just get back up again.
"Soldiers in Afghanistan will tell you that is not true. This will teach youngsters that it is not a computer game."
The 42-year-old's interest in guns started from a historical point of view, which led him to attend historic re-enactments.
Eighteen months ago he founded Mad Badger Group, which imports airsoft equipment for clients and arranges shooting trips for members.
The new shooting range, founded with his partner, is intended to encourage people to compete in shooting competitions rather than just shooting each other at skirmish events.
Housed on a former pig farm with indoor ranges taking up farm buildings, the four-acre venue can be booked by parties of up to 40 people.
Those aged between 14 and 18 will need parental consent to take part.
Mr Slater believes the Wickford range is the only one of its kind outside London.
"I would like to see people copy the idea we have had so eventually we can have clubs around the country," said Mr Slater.
"We can get proper teams together and real competition to build up a proper sport."
The venue will also sell airsoft guns, but only to those carrying a UKARA licence.
Saturday's opening was fully booked and was attended by people from across the country.
"We were booked up a couple of months ago," added Mr Slater.
"There has been a huge amount of interest, even from people who don't have anything to do with airsoft."
For more information visit madbadgergroup.com