A ruddy-faced man in jeans, polo shirt, baseball cap, and padded ear protectors carries a thick-barrel assault rifle to a field bordered by trees, swamp brush, and a twenty-foot-high dirt berm. Under bright sunlight, he lifts the gun to his shoulder and gets a fix through the scope. He leans forward and tenses.
Suddenly a deafening blast issues forth. Fiery orange flashes erupt from the muzzle. In three earsplitting seconds, 30 bullets rip into the berm, 50 yards away, driving a plastic jug crazily up the incline.
The machine gun man -- who wants to be identified simply as Doug -- pauses to insert a new magazine. More gunshots ring out chaotically from points nearby. It's a busy Saturday afternoon at the Trail Glades Range, the shooting facility at the edge of the Everglades along Tamiami Trail that's part of the Dade County parks system. Doug and several fellow machine gun owners are taking target practice on a small range separate from the main fields.
It doesn't take long for range director Kevin Kirwin to show up, a slightly annoyed look on his face, to remind Doug he's not supposed to be shooting that particular gun, a modified AK-47 called a Krinkov -- at least not today, when participants in a weekend skeet-shooting tournament are trying to concentrate. "It's just too loud," says the freckle-faced Kirwin. "I have to limit the calibers because it bothers some of the other shooters out here."
This past January, Doug and a dozen or so other enthusiasts persuaded Kirwin to set aside three hours, one Saturday per month, for civilian machine gun parties on a side range normally used by sharpshooters from various law enforcement agencies. (The guns these men bring to the range are actually submachine guns, fully automatic weapons that fire pistol-caliber bullets from magazines; machine guns fire larger, rifle-caliber bullets from belts.) Although private citizens have always been permitted to shoot automatic weapons at Trail Glades, they've never before had their own space and time slot. Among the six shooters at the range today, at least a dozen different types of machine guns are loaded and ready for action.
The fearsomely noisy Krinkov goes back into its case and out comes an MP5, a sleek German-made gun. Constructed mostly of pressed steel, the lightweight MP5 produces practically no recoil. Doug tries the weapon with and without a silencer, then switches bullets. Both rounds are 9mm but they travel at different speeds and thus make distinctly different sounds when fired. The standard 115-grain (referring to weight) bullet makes a typically loud crack as it breaks the sound barrier; the 147-grain subsonic bullet never breaks the sound barrier and thus makes a sound more like a thud.
Within minutes Doug has gone through a few hundred rounds. "The biggest problem is feeding these things," he mutters, loading another magazine. The smell of gunpowder grows stronger.
There's not much talk among the shooters gathered -- maybe a comment about a gun someone recently purchased or suggestions on how to stop a Tec-9 from jamming. Inevitably, though, the inimitable and exotic sound of automatic fire attracts curious and enthusiastic spectators from other parts of the range. But Kirwin, who's been range director for the past year and a half, makes sure no "hot dogs" (as he refers to boisterous, loud, reckless gun freaks) join the crowd.
In the world of automatic weapons, practically none of the common perceptions about gun regulations or gun owners apply. The vaunted assault-weapons ban passed by Congress in 1994? Irrelevant. That law restricts only certain features on semiautomatic weapons. The so-called Brady Bill? The waiting period to purchase a machine gun is already many times longer and requires far more detailed background checking than is mandated for handguns under that law. Gov. Lawton Chiles's push to tighten state gun-control regulations? It would be difficult to control automatic-weapons sales any more than at present.
As for the owners, Kirwin observes: "They're not like these guys who live in trailers and belong to militias." Indeed, anyone who legally owns an automatic weapon is almost certainly a person who can afford a sizable financial investment and who has an absolutely spotless personal history. The men who get together at Trail Glades every month are all early-middle-age professionals -- an architect, two electrical contractors, a computer programmer, CEOs, business owners. If you're wearing camouflage clothing, they won't let you join the shoots.
You can't buy a machine gun from the usual dealers, either. Sellers must obtain a special license from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), a division of the Department of the Treasury. These sellers (called Class III dealers) can commonly be found on the Internet, in gun magazines, and through word of mouth.
Then it gets expensive. Machine gun prices have been rising ever since 1986. An amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act outlawed the purchase of any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986 by anyone other than law enforcement agencies, the military, or foreign governments. Prices are highly variable but rarely less than $1000, and can reach $40,000 or more for extremely rare or historic guns. Doug, for example, bought his MP5 a year ago for $4200 and estimates it's already appreciated $1000. "It's better than any money in the bank," he says. "It outperforms any stock I've got. And it's an investment you can have fun with." (One reason he wants to shield his identity, he explains, is that he owns several valuable guns. He travels frequently for his job and he doesn't want his home burglarized.)
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.
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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.