The big bang

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am

Richard Parker has a problem with his 50-calibre sniper rifle, but firepower isn't it. Made by British firearms manufacturer Accuracy International, the rifle's cigar-sized bullet reputedly slams into distant targets with more force than Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum at point-blank range. 'With the right ammunition, you can take out a tank,' says the 57-year-old marketing executive from Indiana.

Accuracy isn't the problem either, not for a true marksman: Parker can hit a skull-sized target at 2,000 metres. No, Parker's problem is this: where do you fire a weapon of such power and range that American gun-control advocates believe it poses a serious threat to post-9/11 national security? Answer: Knob Creek Range in Kentucky, America, home to the world's largest machine-gun show, a three-day blast-fest that is - outside of actual combat - an unrivalled display of the deadliest firearms ever made.

Knob Creek is in, fittingly, Bullitt County. A former munitions test site tucked into a cleft in the hills, its main range is about 300 metres long and is littered with old cars, refrigerators, stoves and gas cylinders. None of these targets last long under the withering gunfire unleashed by dozens of shooters in 30-minute bursts. 'Ready on the left?' announces the shoot director over the public address system. 'Ready on the right? Okay, let's rock and roll!'

What follows is a crashing wall of noise, unendurable without ear protection. Only an expert can isolate and savour the snap and crackle of specific weapons: Gatling, Thompson, Browning, Heckler & Koch, Sten, Uzi, M16, AK47. Then there's the minigun, with its six whirring barrels firing up to 6,000 rounds a minute. It spits out bullet casings and is painfully loud: imagine someone slowly cutting your ears with an unmuffled chainsaw.

Stacked high on tables behind the shooters are boxes and clips of live ammunition, including tracer and armour-piercing rounds. It is Friday, the first day of the show, and during a break in the shooting, spectators are allowed on the range to stroll amid colandered fridges and stoves. Some form a reverential huddle around a burned-out, bullet-peppered Ford Lexington. Many spectators will try out the weapons themselves. An M249 light machine gun - known as an 'Iraqi Street Sweeper' by US soldiers - costs more than a dollar a bullet to fire. The minigun is US$650 for 1,200 rounds, the most expensive 12 seconds of your life.

For gun lovers, Knob Creek is a high-decibel declaration of their constitutional right to bear arms, including modern military weapons with a killing potential unimagined by the Second Amendment's 18th-century authors. While only a small percentage of gun owners have high-powered firearms, the community tends to support them, fearful that any legislation passed to outlaw machine guns might eventually be used against hand guns and hunting rifles. Gun control is another divisive issue in a

nation already deeply polarised by President George W. Bush's Iraq misadventure and policies backed by the ultra-conservatives.

Parker is here with his brother, Bill, 54, a big man in a grubby T-shirt. They call themselves the Boom Brothers. Their private arsenal is legal and includes three belt-fed Browning machine guns; a Colt M4 carbine used by US Special Forces for close-quarter combat; two Colt AR15 assault rifles, cousins of the ubiquitous M16; four large-calibre sniper rifles, one fitted with a silencer; and a Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine gun, often featured in action movies and video games. Back in the trailer, they've left a futuristic-looking Bushmaster rifle, a Browning automatic rifle, a fully automatic Uzi and some AK47s. 'They're like our little children,' Bill says.

Bill is a wealthy private investigator who lives on a Caribbean island. While Knob Creek attracts both serving and retired soldiers, plus its fair share of freaks, video-game geeks, rednecks and militiamen, this is an expensive hobby and many shooters are doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals. (The Boom Brothers' armoury is worth more than US$500,000.) It usually takes Bill hours to get his machine guns checked through US airports, but only because they fascinate the security staff, who are often former police or soldiers. 'Americans have a love affair with guns,' Bill says. And how does he transport the ammunition? 'I ship it by UPS.' Over the three-day shoot, the Boom Brothers will fire tens of thousands of rounds, worth thousands of dollars. 'Our record is about 40,000 rounds,' says Parker.

For an average, law-abiding American, the hardest part of getting his hands on a machine gun is a three- to six-month raft of background checks, finger-printing and paperwork involving local police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Finding a licensed machine gun to buy is easy. In 1994, former president Bill Clinton signed a 10-year federal ban on certain assault weapons, but civilians were still allowed to possess or transfer millions of assault weapons that had been legally manufactured or owned before the law was passed. Also, slightly adapted versions of banned firearms could still be legally manufactured - and millions were. In 2002, a sniper killed 10 people around Washington with a Bushmaster XM15 assault rifle, a copy of the banned Colt AR15. Despite the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 that left 13 dead, the Republican-dominated Congress allowed the ban to expire. The anti-gun lobby argues the Bush administration has put assault weapons back on the streets. The truth is, they never really left them.

Knob Creek locals like Bush. A sign at the gate declares: 'We Support Our President And Our Troops.' This is a country at war, as the T-shirts people are wearing here also remind you. 'Kill 'em all,' reads one, 'Let Allah sort them out,' proclaims another. One shooter's shirt has a cartoon of an Arab wearing a bandage around his head instead of a turban. 'I Support Iraqi Prisoner Abuse,' it declares.

A shooter called Doug Ferguson is selling T-shirts that, he admits, are 'a little' politically incorrect. 'I made them for some friends serving overseas.' The front of the T-shirt reads, 'Baghdad Tobacco Company', while the back - beneath a sketch of a bullet-riddled Iraqi - says, 'Anytime's a good time to smoke a raghead. Fire one up today.'

Ferguson is a trim, muscular Virginian with alert eyes. He looks like a Special Forces officer, but he won't reveal his profession. 'Are you military?' I ask. 'Ex-military,' he says. Can you be more specific? 'No.'

There is more military paraphernalia for sale at Knob Creek's busy market. You can buy Latvian military-issue gas masks, coffee mugs bearing portraits of Hitler and Himmler, camouflage bra-and-panty sets, and manuals for making bombs in your basement and napalm in your bathtub. Another stall sells bumper stickers. 'The easiest way to a woman's heart is through the ribcage,' says one. 'If it weren't for the flashbacks,' reads another, 'I'd have no memory at all.' 'I'm looking for one that says, 'Register Commies, Not Firearms,'' says Ralph Passonno, an auctioneer from New York state.

Passonno grew up with guns. 'My daddy gave me my first gun when I was four years old,' he says. Now the owner of a Colt AR15 semi-automatic, Passonno is a plump, jovial man with a white beard; just like Santa Claus, but armed. 'Guns prevent crime,' he says, even though his business partner was shot dead by an armed assailant in 1981 and Passonno was seriously injured.

Day two, Saturday, and thousands of people are arriving. They come in gas-gorging SUVs and Humvees bearing American flags and Bush-Cheney stickers; they arrive on Harley-Davidsons and quad bikes and in lumbering motor homes.

Possibly the happiest man at Knob Creek is Jeff Gilland. As the local recruiter for the National Rifle Association (NRA), he expects to sign up dozens of new members this weekend. 'I do well,' says Gilland, 49, a former US Air Force guard who now works at a Jim Beam whiskey factory. 'I'm not a high-pressure salesman by any means. I just give them a few facts to think about.' Joining the NRA is not just sensible, he says, but downright patriotic. 'The NRA does similar things on the home front that our military does all around the world: protect freedom.'

Dusk approaches. Thousands of spectators have gathered for the night shoot, Knob Creek's spectacular central event. First, however, the shooters lay down their smoking weapons while a preacher delivers a long, fiery sermon over the public address system. Greg Cotton, an arms collector from Minnesota, has been listening and is shaking his head. 'A 30-second, multi-denominational sermon is fine,' he says. 'But a five-minute rant? No thanks. But a lot of this crowd are quite receptive to that.'

Well-groomed and softly spoken, Cotton is the acceptable face of gun enthusiasts. He grew up in a liberal family, spent the 1970s 'doing the hippy thing' and now works as a commercial pilot. He is also a member of the NRA and two pro-gun lobby groups in his home state. 'When we're trying to convince politicians that we're a reasonable, responsible bunch,' he says, 'it does not help when the knuckle-dragging crowd show up.'

The sun sets. I have worn plastic earmuffs for two days and the skin behind my right ear is swollen and is peeling. The night shoot is about to start. Down range, in the darkness, sit half-a-dozen 50-gallon drums of fuel strapped with dynamite. When the shooters let rip, the barrels will explode and the night sky will light up with billowing flames and black clouds cross-hatched with multicoloured tracer fire.

'Stand at the left side of the range,' an old-timer advises. 'That way you get the best concussion.' But Passonno insists I borrow his shooter's pass and weapon, so I end up on the firing line, squeezed between Browning and Thompson machine guns. I'm handed a fully-loaded Colt 223 M16 by Passonno's buddy Pete, a taciturn guy who seems appalled by my lack of firearms experience.

As we wait for the order to fire, I say to Pete, 'There should be a bumper sticker that says, 'Never give an Englishman a loaded machine gun.'' Pete looks at me and laughs without smiling.