Why Many Americans Don’t Understand Machine Gun Laws

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Close-up view of a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun firing at the Training Support Center Benelux 25-meter indoor range in Chièvres, Belgium, Oct. 22, 2015.

Close-up view of a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun firing at the Training Support Center Benelux 25-meter indoor range in Chièvres, Belgium, Oct. 22, 2015.

The instructor’s face wore a frown, and I was worried that I’d committed some safety violation that was going to get me kicked out of the rifle range. When you’re firing the same kind of machine gun that killed Osama bin Laden, a weapon that can spit out 900 bullets a minute, the rules are many, and strictly observed.

The instructor leaned closer. “Stop firing little bursts,” he urged me. “You’re not getting the real fun of the gun. This time, when you pull the trigger, keep holding it down until every bullet is gone.”

I nodded, put my eye back to the crosshair sight of the sleek HK416, and squeezed the trigger. Fifteen shots rang out in a couple of seconds, their bass-drum whump-whump-whumps synchronized with the thump of the gunstock against my shoulder, a furious cacophony of thunderous noise, untrammeled power and surging adrenaline, all enveloped with the acrid scent of gun powder.

The instructor was smiling again. “You get it now?” he asked.

Perfectly legal

The national din over guns in the wake of mass shootings at a government office complex in San Bernardino, California, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando may not be quite loud as the one produced by the HK416, but it’s way more confusing. Countless millions of Americans do not know the difference between a semiautomatic assault rifle, like the ones used in those two shootings, which fire one bullet each time you pull the trigger, and fully automatic machine guns like I fired last week, which keep spitting out bullets continuously.

And millions more believe that machine guns are illegal — that except for a handful of antiques in the hands of a few collectors, they’ve been outlawed and banished from America.

Actually, machine guns are perfectly legal. They require a federal permit and a background check, which typically take six to eight months to complete, and the guns themselves are priced out of the hands of most people, with $8,000 being a bargain-basement sticker.

The high prices are the result of a federal law that banned the manufacture of machine guns for private use in 1986. “After that, the prices followed the law of supply and demand,” says Doral machine-gun dealer Ruben Mendiola. “Less guns, higher prices. An automatic M-16 that used to go for $300 in 1986 is a $27,000 gun today. My average invoice for one gun is probably $20,000. It’s like when they started selling property on Star Island. You could get an acre there for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Now it’s $12 million.”

Yet even with those price tags, private citizens have registered more than 543,000 machine guns with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (including more than 33,000 in Florida). “That’s not really a huge number in a country of 300 million people,” says Jacksonville Beach firearms-law attorney Cord Byrd. “But it’s enough that you wouldn’t really call them uncommon.”

But you don’t have to own a machine gun to rent one. Not that you can plunk down a fee and take an AK-47 out to the Everglades. But a half-dozen shooting ranges in Miami-Dade and Broward will rent you one to fire inside their facilities. And these aren’t antiques from the days of Bonnie and Clyde, either, but the same weapons being fired today in Syria, Afghanistan and the rest of the places you see on the evening news.

The guns are acquired by the ranges with federal firearms-dealer licenses, and though they can’t be resold except to military, police or other authorized agencies, it’s perfectly legal to rent them to customers who want a chance to shoot a weapon they’ve probably only seen in the movies.

“There are lots of places doing this around the country,” said a BATF spokesman in Washington, D.C. “As long as they have the proper license and there’s no state prohibition, any range can do it.”

Bachelor parties

That’s why I found myself last week at Lock & Load Miami, an upscale firing range inexplicably nestled among the galleries and artisan boutiques of Wynwood. With 10 instructors and a choice of two dozen or so weapons ranging from Soviet-made AK-47s to Israeli Uzis, it’s the Disneyland of machine guns. “I haven’t had a client leave disappointed in a firearm yet,” says general manager Franklin Rosario, my instructor for the day.

I’m neither a gun nut nor a gun virgin. My dad was a championship marksman during his 21 years in the U.S. Army, and taught most of his kids to shoot. At the age of 10 or so, he had each of us out on the range, plinking away with .22 rifles and, sometimes, more.

My older sister was the family’s Deadeye Dick, winning a lot of target-shooting contests against GIs when she was a teenager and we lived on a military base in Germany. My brother was skillful enough that he came back from a tour of duty in Vietnam in one piece. I was better-than-average with the .22, but all the hours spent taking apart and cleaning the gun after using it bored me senseless. By the time I was a teenager, I was drifting away from the target range, and before last week I hadn’t fired a gun in 30 years.

Rosario, my instructor, waved off any worries that I’d been away from guns for too long to try this. “Most of the people who come in here have never fired any gun before, and almost none of them have ever fired a machine gun,” he assured me. “A lot of them are tourists, they’re here from Europe or Latin America or someplace in the United States where they can’t do this, and they want to give it a try. They want an experience.”

But the allure of machine guns extends past tourists. LeBron James, when he was still playing with the Heat, was a frequent customer at Lock & Load. (“His wife shoots a lot better than him,” confides Rosario.) Other celebrity shooters who’ve posed for pictures at the range include actors Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, DJ Irie and Rob O’Neill, the former Navy SEAL who has identified himself as the man who shot bin Laden.

“Some people come in on a whim, and others throw big parties,” says Rosales. “We’ve had bachelor parties here, bachelorette parties, divorce parties, you name it.”

And what better present for the man or woman who has everything than the opportunity to blast away with a machine gun for a few minutes? “I took my mother to a range to fire one for her 60th birthday,” says Adam Farkas, a West Palm Beach attorney who firmly supports a ban on private machine guns (”I really don’t see any reason why a normal person should want to own one”) but is nonetheless a regular at the ranges that rent them.

“She’s really kind of anti-gun, but she thought it was kind of fun. So then we took her father for his 85th birthday, and he had a great time. It’s a rush, an adrenaline rush. You feel the power of the weapon while you’re firing. Normal people respect the power for what it is and don’t misuse it.... But whether you’ve seen them in the movies or whatever, guns are exciting and adventurous. It’s part of our American culture. To deny that is just false.”

Oddly, Farkas has probably fired more rounds of ammunition with a machine gun than many collectors. “My customer is not a survivalist who runs around in camouflage,” says gun dealer Mendiola. “He’s a surgeon or a businessman. And a lot of them don’t shoot the guns at all.

“They keep them in walk-in vaults where they can pick them up and look at them. The values have gone so crazy that nobody who owns a machine gun goes out and fires 10,000 rounds and lets the barrel get red-hot. They’re too valuable... They may take them out and shoot a few rounds now and then, but you don’t want to damage your investment. There’s too much money involved.”

There’s money involved in rentals, too. Lock & Load offers packages of different weapons that start at $134 and top out at $545. (There’s also an $82.50 special for kids ages 10 to 13, but those weapons aren’t automatics.)

Along with the HK416, I fired three other machine guns: the Glock 18, a pistol so powerful that it’s fitted with a shoulder stock, like a rifle; the HK MP5, a favorite of police SWAT teams; and the FN Herstal SAW M249, a lighter-weight weapon that replaced the old two-man machine guns you see in movies about World War II and Vietnam. Most of them fire 700 to 900 rounds a minute, though the Glock 18 can reach a mind-boggling 1,200 a minute or more.

Unsurprisingly, firing a machine gun took a little more instruction than did my old childhood .22. “Machine guns are not difficult to shoot, but they’re not the easiest, either,” says Rosales.

The main thing is to brace your body — right foot out, hips bent forward, gun stock firmly embedded in your shoulder — to control the weapon’s recoil as you increase your firing rate from semi-automatic (one shot at a time) to short bursts (three at a time) to fully automatic. My shots always started out tightly grouped in the target’s bull’s-eye, but drifted up and to the right as the bursts continued.

It’s that sensation of trying (and mostly succeeding) to bend the powerful weapon to your will that makes shooting a machine gun so exciting. Between the gun’s relentless backlash and hellish din, it seems like you’re trying to control a stream of bullets flying around at 3,000 feet per second while locked inside a garbage can that’s being battered with a baseball bat.

The pride at seeing the bullet holes clump around the center of the target has nothing to do with killing or destruction, but accomplishing a difficult task — not unlike our childhood games of trying to drop clothes pins into milk bottles, but way louder and cooler.

For all that, the most daunting and awe-inspiring gun I fired at Lock & Load wasn’t automatic. It was the Barrett M95, which fires a huge .50 caliber bullet — that’s the size that was used by buffalo hunters in the Old West — from a shell that’s four and a half inches long. The Barrett M95 is so powerful that the military classifies it as an “anti-materiel” weapon — it can destroy an airplane or punch through a brick wall. But with a range of over a mile, it’s also used by snipers stalking human targets.

Even the Lock & Load instructors stop what they’re doing to watch when somebody fires the M95, which resounds like a thunderclap and throws out a gale of gases in the bullet’s wake. “Put your notebook on the floor,” suggested Rosario as I laid it on a shelf before picking up the gun. “Otherwise it’s going to blow all over the place.” When I returned to it a couple of minutes later, a page had torn out.

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