Burning Man for gun nuts

Sights, sounds and automatic weapon reports from the Knob Creek machine gun shoot

Published November 6, 2013 1:15PM (EST)

This article originally appeared in Media Matters for America.

It's an odd feeling to get the upsell on instruction manuals related to domestic terrorism. The nice lady from the Illinois hamlet of Smithton would never describe her wares that way, but that's what they are. The booklets were stacked in neat rows that wrapped around her four tables in the exhibitor's hall at October's Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, a biannual event just south of Louisville that looks and sounds a lot like a reenactment of the first days of the Siege of Stalingrad. Since 1979, the Shoot has drawn growing numbers of full-auto aficionados to the wooded hills of West Point, Ky. for holidays of high explosives, artillery and machine gun fire. Each April and October, bombs shake the earth and blacken the sky. Streams of bullets smack steel and rubber targets until they burst aflame. The rumble from the range is audible even at the far end of the event's 900-table vendors hall, where I found myself one fine autumn morning perusing technical guides to building kitchen-table bombs and retro-engineering semi-automatic rifles into military-style machine guns.

Most of the many thousands of blueprints for sale at the Shoot -- old Army manuals for M16 maintenance, recipes for homemade bullets of every conceivable caliber -- can be described as ideologically neutral. The same cannot be said for those sold by the lady from Smithton (who refused to give her name, but let's call her Blanche). Her stapled pamphlets each contained cryptic forewords about government mind-control and the need to "advance our culture." For sale among them were spiral-bound copies of white-power manifestos and neo-fascist fantasy fiction, including a samizdat edition of The Turner Diaries, an influential skinhead classic by the neo-Nazi leader William Pierce. I was reading a page from the Diaries when Blanche returned with the change on my purchase of "Plastique Explosives: Composition C and Cyclonite Base With Various Plasticizing Agents." With all the nonchalance of a barista mentioning a new latte, she delivered her pitch on fertilizer bombs.

"You know," she said, "if you're interested in plastics, you might like the one my son's just putting out now." I followed her nod toward a gangly teenager in braces arranging the display of a tract titled, "Kitchen Improvised Fertilizer Explosives."

In certain extremist circles, there is a romance to this breed of bomb. The hero-martyr of The Turner Diaries, which I continued to hold in my hands, begins his "race war" by detonating truck bombs made from heating oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Expository sections in The Turner Diaries explain the bomb-making process and may have inspired America's most murderous fertilizer bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Sections of the Diaries were found in McVeigh's getaway car after his 1995 attack on the Oklahoma City federal center. Three years after McVeigh's truck bomb, the Texas Klansman who dragged James Byrd Jr. to death from the back of his pick-up truck reportedly got behind the wheel with the words, "We're starting The Turner Diaries early."

The boy cheerfully handed me a copy of "Fertilizer Explosives" and I put the Diaries down. He and his mother watched me as I flipped through the instructions for mixing acetone with powdered nitroglycerin, the itemized lists of detonation velocities and pressures, the grades given to various mixtures for their applicability in the three categories of Blasting, Demolitions, and Munitions. For smaller jobs, there was a two-page recipe for a smokeless powder that can be spooned into P.V.C. pipes for a "dynamite alternative with good shattering characteristics." There were a few empty pages in the back for notes.

"Yeah, this is great," I said. "But I've been spending a lot of money out there." I extended a thumb in the direction of the range, where men, women, and children were lining up to pay $1.50 per bullet to unload ammo clips and belts at explosives-laden junkyard sedans and burned-out appliances.

"We'll be here all weekend if you change your mind," said Blanche. "Better to have these in paper. They're watching you now on the Internet."

Blanche placed my book on plastiques in a discreet brown paper bag and I strolled toward an exit under a weather-beaten Confederate battle flag. On the way out I passed the table of an Indiana-based online retailer of skinhead fashion. The business card on the table advertised "WWII German Memorabilia," but there was little for the collector at Knob Creek. Its presentation mostly featured items that looked like they had just come from the factory: crisp swastika patches, reflective SS stickers, Wehrmacht Eagle t-shirts, hoodies with Panzerdivison and Afrikakorps insignia. Across the aisle from both the neo-Nazi gear and the Tim McVeigh bookstore, two women in pink t-shirts offered $10 off annual memberships to the NRA.

The Knob Creek Shoot is best understood as American gun culture's Burning Man. Like the annual art and music festival in the Nevada desert, it has spawned a community that stretches across the country, even as the defining event keeps a regional heart and spirit. The same way "Burners" meet up locally throughout a calendar year anchored by the August pilgrimage to Black Rock, Nevada, "Knob Creekers" stay in touch between biannual shoots. They socialize online, meet up at gun ranges, and organize Knob Creek crews. Like Burning Man, the Shoot has been around long enough to become a multigenerational rite of passage. At the range reserved for small arms like Uzis and Mac-10s, it is common to see a father-son ritual of dads taking their boys to fire their first machine gun, a sort of ballistic bar mitzvah. The grass parking lots around Knob Creek are dotted with tents, canopies and clusters of folding NASCAR seats, around which friends fire up barbeque and tailgate to a nearby soundtrack of simulated war. Ask them why they come, often using vacation days to do so, and they'll tell you, "it's a hoot," that it's "all the stuff you want to do in your backyard but can't," and that it's a chance to see old friends and "get your hands on the big guns." Many are history buffs, often with a focus on the German military and its many pioneering machine guns. One attendee at October's shoot strolled the grounds in an original 1950s East German 1st Lt. infantry uniform. When I asked him to identify his army and rank, he raised his chin and answered in a bad Colonel Klink accent.

The most obvious parallel between Knob Creek and Burning Man is the way both events culminate in a cathartic nighttime fire. Burning Man peaks with fireworks and a wooden effigy bonfire. The Shoot's big finale begins at sundown on its second day, when downrange targets are larded with explosive charges and surrounded with brimming drums of diesel oil. After the setting of the sun and the singing of many patriotic songs, a firing line of machine guns and artillery pieces light up the night sky with a deafening and mesmerizing pyrotechnic barrage. It is, as the Knob Creek Shoot brochure boasts, a scene featuring "giant, explosive mushroom clouds like fireballs from Hell!" Thousands of tracer bullets crisscross the field and ricochet off their targets at what seem like improbable angles. Watching their pinball trajectories could be a lesson in the tragic geometry of urban gun violence, where cars, street signs, and fire hydrants often send bullets on new line paths far from their intended targets.

It should go without saying that Knob Creek isn't the place to find discussion about the 30,000 Americans killed annually by gun violence. But it is surprisingly absent of any interest in gun policy at all, at least as commonly understood. On the surface, the Shoot is a cultural and recreational event, where the politics are at once everywhere and nowhere. Beneath the surface, if only barely, runs an ideological undercurrent that overlaps little with stuff of state and federal court decisions. The politics of Knob Creek are those of apocalypse and secession, not background checks and magazine-limits. The Shoot draws a range of gun folk, but they skew toward those looking ahead to the day when country roads are ruled by cars like the M60-mounted SUV with a skull hood ornament that drew universal admiration inside the vendor's hall. As a group, Knob Creekers seem eager for the day when, to paraphrase one t-shirt I saw, "ammo is the new currency."

The Knob Creek Gun Range, where "2nd Amendment Freedom" is "Served Extra Crispy," has long been a hub of survivalist culture with a sharp neo-Confederate edge. This history is visible in the layers of faded political stickers on the cash register of the Knob Creek gun store where racks of assault rifles sit beneath Confederate flags and their state variations. This palimpsest of Kentucky fried paranoia chronicles a shifting cast of "Others": from the global communist conspiracy, to Clinton and Janet Reno's ATF, to the UN, to Islam and Aztlan, and back to the UN and a new Democratic president, who is seen as combining elements of every previous enemy. Knob Creek is just one of the more famous gun ranges that have made a good business in training its customers for a coming conflict imagined as an Invasion U.S.A. sequel directed by Ban Ki Moon. Knob Creek's latest course offering is called "Zombies & Black Helicopters Reconsidered," the zombies being thinly veiled stand-ins for UN blue helmets and liberal gun-grabbers.

The iconography and spirit of secession is alive year-round at Knob Creek, but it appears to gain new life during the biannual Shoots. When I arrived at the entrance on Friday morning, a middle-aged female volunteer greeted me with a free copy of a "rebel" newspaper called The First Freedom. The headline declared, "Knob Creek Gun Range Practices 2nd Amendment Rights." Below it was an article asking, "Have You Considered Secession?" The 24-page broadsheet included articles on why "Normal Whites everywhere must do more than die with a smug smile," and how the League of the South is fighting back against the immigration policies of the "ZOG" (Zionist Occupied Government). The issue also featured an essay penned by Henry Ford during his anti-Semitic period, entitled, "How the Jewish Song Trust Makes You Sing," and a profile of Rochus Misch, Adolf Hitler's bodyguard, who died recently while defiantly maintaining that his old boss "was no brute." The First Freedom had made official arrangements with the Knob Creek management, and was the closest thing to an in-house newspaper during the shoot.

The fantasy of secession as found in the pages of the First Freedom may in part explain the glorification, and quasi-religious attention to maintenance, of the sorts of heavy weapons exhibited at Knob Creek. Should there be another war between the states, the only militia with a fighting chance, in theory, is the one armed with the .50 cal. sniper rifles, howitzers, belt-fed M-60s, mortars, heavy artillery, flame throwers, grenade launchers and privately owned attack helicopters. All of these can be appreciated and used for a price at Knob Creek.

Until this arsenal is called forth as part of some future insurrection, its ritual collection and display is actually a rare sign of good health in American gun law. The reason so many people travel so far and pay so much to shoot these weapons is because they are so strictly regulated, and thus relatively rare and inaccessible. There are people, here and there, who argue machine guns should be as easy to buy on the civilian market as semi-automatic rifles -- the evangelical author and Glenn Beck favorite David Barton believes Americans should be able to purchase not just machine guns, but Abrams Tanks and fighter jets -- but these voices do not add up to a lobby.

After briefly toying with an effort to deregulate machine guns in the 1980s, the NRA has come to accept the laws, first signed by FDR and strengthened by Ronald Reagan, that put full-auto weapons behind the wall of a very expensive and federally monitored Class III firearms license. NRA president David Keene recently reaffirmed his organization's acceptance of this regime. The Facebook group "Deregulate Machine Guns in America," with just 900 followers, is right to place more hope in 3-D printing than any foreseeable change in the law. Even the anonymous author of an auto-conversion pamphlet I picked up at Knob Creek felt obliged to note the limited practicality of automatic fire outside of "a few hosing down operations."

So long as these weapons and the "hosing down operations" to which they are suited remain confined to rural gun ranges, the Shoot doesn't signify much beyond all of the smoke and the fire. It's recommended to keep an eye on people like Blanche and her customers, especially those interested in fertilizer. Yet for all its neo-Nazi apparel, neo-Confederate Mad Max fantasies and eardrum destroying fury, the larger machine gun subculture has settled into ritualized gun-range play dates where the weapons, which have been banned from entering civilian circulation since 1986, are as much museum pieces as weapons. History tells us to take seriously the record number of Patriot and Militia groups sprouting up around institutions like Knob Creek. But as a self-contained celebration of the machine gun, the country's biggest Shoot is of roughly the same political consequence as the party at Burning Man. Which is another way of saying none at all.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

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