In the Heart of America's Love Affair with Firepower
Wearing orange foam earplugs to muffle the nearby thunder of relentless automatic weapons fire, a grizzled man with SS lightning bolt tattoos on his forearms pulls a little red wagon loaded with rifle ammunition. Carefully picking his way through the teeming crowd, he passes table after table laden with machine guns, gas masks, combat knives, war memorabilia and bomb-making guides. The man sheds his camouflage tactical vest to reveal a worn black T-shirt emblazoned with a Totenkopf, the Death's Head symbol of the Waffen SS. Then he parks his wagon to join a huddle of shoppers surrounding a hard-faced spokeswoman from Valkyrie Arms who's extolling the virtues of the Olympia, Wash.-based arms maker's new product, the Valkyrior 556 Rotary Gun.
"It's .223-caliber, six barrels, basically you're looking at a hand-cranked mini-gun," she says.
The man asks, "What's the rate of fire?"
"Just as fast as you can crank it," she replies. "We just shipped a load of these babies to civilian security contractors in Iraq for convoy protection. When I go to sleep tonight, I'll dream of towel heads splattering all over the place."
"We need to ship a few to the border and start splattering Mexicans," he says.
Then he picks up his wagon handle and continues browsing the wares. Two hundred yards away, around the Knob Creek Gun Range's lower shooting area, hundreds of men, women and children are lined up like kids at Disneyland to rent and shoot M-16s, Uzis, AK-47s, SPAS 12 full-auto shotguns, vintage Tommy Guns and Heckler & Koch MP-5s. A teenaged boy wearing a shirt with a grinning Jane Fonda and the words "Commie Traitor Bitch" pays $25 to rip 20 bullets through a .30-06 caliber BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). "Man," he says, grinning and shaking the BAR owner's hand. "That's one hell of a rush."
At a former naval proving ground near Fort Knox, the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire, as the semi-annual Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot gets under way. Billed as "the nation's largest machine gun shoot and military gun show," the Knob Creek festival, which takes place every April and October, is a frenzied exhibition of firepower to rival a bad day in Mogadishu. On the upper range, which is reserved for heavy weaponry, the rental guns include a belt-fed M-60 ($40 for 50 rounds, $75 for 100), a 1917 British-made Vickers Mark 1, and a Civil War-era Gatling gun. The main attraction, though, is a six-barrel M134 Minigun, which is powered by a General Electric motor and sends 4,000 rounds of hot lead per minute downrange. Retail price: roughly $225,000.
Every half hour or so, the upper range master declares a cease-fire. Festival workers remove the smoldering wreckage of junker cars and household appliances and then freshen up the supply of targets. During these breaks, a flamethrower operator suits up rental customers in silver stunt man suits and lets 'em rip for $195 per tank. Nearby, the crew of a privately owned field artillery gun pumps huge shells into a denuded hillside, drawing cheers from the bleachers. The concussive force of the explosions trigger hundreds of car alarms inside the vehicles lining both sides of a rural highway half a mile away, up a muddy hill and across a creek from the Knob Creek Gun Range entrance. The whoops and buzzes of the alarms are nearly drowned out by the dragon's roar of the flamethrower, and then sonically obliterated by dozens of machine guns that erupt when the upper range master announces, "Go hot!"
The Knob Creek shoot started in 1979 as a local event, but now attracts machine gun enthusiasts from across the county. Attendance tops 10,000. Throughout the 1990s, it was a major gathering point and recruiting ground for antigovernment, paramilitary militias. They held meetings in the festival campground and leadership summits at hotels in nearby Shephardsville. In April 1998, a dust-up between leaders of the U.S. Theater Command and the Southeastern States Alliance at a militia unity conference during the Knob Creek shoot caused a lasting split that weakened the movement.
Knob Creek organizers have for years insisted that the majority of people who come to their machine gun festivals are not white supremacists or militia members. While that's probably true, a survey of tattoos, patches, T-shirt symbols, and merchandise at the April 2006 events provided strong evidence of a significant extremist presence. Sonny Landham, the 1980s action movie star who now shills for the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, signed autographs and distributed CCC literature at his booth near a hot-dog stand. Print and CD editions of the racist fantasy novel The Turner Diaries were widely available, along with copies of the U.S. Militiaman's Handbook, a guide to armed insurrection during "R-2," the second American Revolution.
"When municipal, township, county, or local area law enforcement agents attack or seek to confine or control the U.S. Militia or its individual members, those agencies should be totally eliminated in the initial attack," the handbook advises. "Do not allow any law enforcement agents to escape. Kill them all."
While most of the violent extremist materials for sale were scattered amidst more innocuous items, one booth at the April 2006 shoot, housed in gun show stall C-22, offered nothing but hate paraphernalia: hundreds of neo-Nazi, white power, and hate rock T-shirts; Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess and Eva Braun coffee mugs; Hitler youth flags; and Celtic cross "White Pride World Wide" banners.
'This is America'
"I do not think of us as an extremist or militia gathering, but we do not regulate any items sold," Knob Creek Gun Range owner and festival chief Kenny Sumner wrote, responding to E-mailed questions about booth C-22. "If someone wants to sell white supremacist and neo-Nazi crap, that's OK with me. If it offends anyone, they don't have to stop at that vendor's table. It's just like strip clubs. I don't care nothing about them and they can be wherever they want. I have the ability to stop in or drive by. This is America and we do have the right to choose. That's why I do not restrict any of the vendors at our show."
Rob Walker, who describes himself as "the fat, happy guy handing out Shotgun News," has attended the past 15 Knob Creek shoots as part of his job for a New York City magazine publishing house. "I have never perceived an air of hate," Walker says. "In fact, I've seen people of all races having a great time together."
In past years, Walker says, "The militia groups simply used the huge draw of the KCR [Knob Creek Range] shoot to entice a greater amount of attendance at their little meetings, but they were never officially affiliated with KCR. Now, I've never seen anything more disturbing than some truly tasteless T-shirts. While I'd prefer to not even stand next to someone wearing a few of those shirts, it's the First Amendment and I won't argue with that."
Beginning in 2004, Walker has distributed materials on "genocide and gun ownership" produced by the far-right JPFO (Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership) at Knob Creek shoots. "Not only was that well received, it was never scoffed at," he says. "The materials were well marked as being from a Jewish group. Never have I heard a single anti-Semitic utterance."
Saturday night special
The Saturday night climax of every Knob Creek machine gun festival is the famous "night shoot." On the upper range, heavy machine gunners load their weapons with phosphorus tracer rounds and take aim through night vision goggles at glow sticks marking 50-gallon drums filled with gasoline and strapped with sticks of dynamite. The signal for the night shoot to begin is the whirring arrival of a black helicopter, its M-60 door gun spewing chartreuse tracer rounds from the sky.
The fiery explosions illuminate the grinning faces of thousands. The vast majority of them are white. But just as Walker claimed, there are a few blacks and Hispanics. All are unified, at least for the moment, in the taboo joy of mass destruction as spectator sport.