Before he could start having fun, however, Doug, like every other machine gun buyer, was required to fill out a detailed ATF application form for each gun and turn it over to the local law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in his area. That department ran a background check and the chief personally signed off on the application.
Then Doug sent the form along with $200 to Washington, where ATF agents conducted their own investigation. Final approval for the sale was then recorded in an ATF national registry. When he received the stamped form in the mail several months later, Doug picked up his gun from the Class III dealer who was selling it. (Ever since Lee Harvey Oswald bought a rifle through a mail-order catalogue and used it to assassinate John F. Kennedy in 1963, obtaining any gun through the mail has been illegal, although one Class III dealer can mail a gun to another Class III dealer.) An individual buying an automatic weapon from another nondealer must go through the same approval process as the original buyer. Says ATF senior agent Eduardo Halley of the bureau's Miami office: "Very few of the weapons registered in that fashion are ever involved in any type of criminal activity. It's kind of a cumbersome process and the people who do it legally are primarily collectors."
Herman, his sneakers planted firmly on the sparse grass a few yards from Doug, squeezes off several hundred .223 caliber rounds from his Steyer-Aug "bullpup," a small, short-muzzle weapon with a molded polymer stock. A tall, hefty, bearded man wearing a T-shirt memorializing a motorcycle convention in Georgia, Herman looks almost as intimidating as his gun, but in fact he's a respectable business owner and mild-mannered family man. As usual, his eleven-year-old son Jeff has accompanied him to the range.
Jeff then steps up with an FNC Belgian assault rifle that is almost as long as he is tall. As the boy fires coolly, empty bullet casings spew from the chamber. "I've been shooting just about every [submachine gun] we own since I was ten," he says.
Toward the end of the allotted three hours, one of the onlookers collars Otto Pena, the range safety officer assigned to oversee this session. "He wanted to know if he could bring his M-60 next time," reports Pena, an ex-army man. He runs a hand through his close-cropped black hair and shakes his head in bemusement. The M-60 is a massive Vietnam-era gun that shoots belts of .308 caliber bullets. "Nah," Pena says. "I don't think so. That's a little too big and loud for this range.