WEST POINT, Ky. – The sound of gunfire rumbles and echoes from half a mile away, long before anyone can see the entrance. The walk up to the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot starts on the country road outside the range, lined with cars from Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Georgia. Their occupants scramble for space before grabbing their ammo and starting uphill. They trudge through dirt that mostly, mercifully, has not yet turned into mud, and up to a gate where for $10 ($15 if they want to shoot video) they get an all-day pass to the biggest high-powered arms show in the country.
The noise, loud enough to interrupt a conversation outside of the gates, is deafening inside. Earplugs are not mandatory, only recommended, but everyone has them, from flimsy foam things handed out near the entrance to shapeable rubber plugs on strings to full-coverage, noise-deadening headphones. Every thirty-odd minutes a loud horn blares, and the shooting begins — dozens of Brownings, AK-47s and mini-guns open fire, some with armor-piercing rounds, on a range of broken-down cars, flaming barrels, and metal cans. There are people who’ve attended this twice-a-year event for decades who flinch when the volleys begin and the smell of gunpowder is wind-blown back into the audience.
As fun as this is — and for the people who arrived before 7 a.m. to set up shop, it is very fun — there’s a sense of foreboding this year. At the October 2008 gun show, said one of the organizers of the Jungle Walk ($35 for an Uzi and a stroll through a path of pop-up targets), “it was like a McCain-Palin rally in here. It felt like we were going to win. Then you know what happened.”
Ever since the election of President Barack Obama, gun store owners have reported massive increases in sales of firearms and ammunition. Attendees and sellers at Knob Creek can confirm that. Ron Hansen, a retiree from Michigan, grumbles that the ammunition supply at the show has “declined dramatically” since the displays of only a year ago. Myron Moore, a seller making a brisk trade in pistols and clips, explains that sales spiked right after the election and have slipped only a little because people worry this will be their last chance to stock up. “I’m selling everything Obama’s trying to ban,” he laughs.
Other attendees were uncomfortable revealing their first or last names. As massive as the event is — the Knob Creek Gun Range estimated that around 15,000 people passed through the gates–it does not keep tabs on who comes in. This is a safe haven, where guns can change hands without a lot of paperwork, and where ammunition is relatively cheap, though the prices have skyrocketed in the last few years. A purchase of an old Mauser rifle that would take some red tape-cutting in a gun shop is hassle-free at the gun range.
This is a place where vendors can sell T-shirts that read “The Fourth Reich: Obama-Biden 2012,” and “Hitler Gave Great Speeches Too..” and, most succinctly, “Fuck Obama.” It’s somewhere for people with hard-to-explain interests in World War II memorabilia can pick up items from Wehrmacht uniforms (“I’m putting the stuff together to make me a German officer,” says a man buying a Wehrmacht officer’s cap), Adolf Hitler mousepads (“Next time… no more Mr. Nice Guy”), and coffee mugs with Nazi commanders’ faces etched on them.
This leads to a certain skepticism of the media. Mark Stevens, whose Nazi merchandise is not moving very quickly on Saturday, declines to talk about it. “Any publicity from the media is bad publicity,” he explained.
One man asks a vendor if she has any “Impeach Obama” bumper stickers. Initially, he’s open to talking about his problems with the president. “There’s a black man in the White House,” he said. “What else do you need to know?” He suggests that journalism isn’t much of a career and tells me to look for something else to do. But 15 minutes later, he spots me in the range’s gun shop and asks me to cross his name out of my notebook. He grabs the book, grabs a pen, and scratches dark black ink onto the paper. “I don’t know who you are,” he said. “I don’t know if you work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. I don’t know if you work for the government.”
For other attendees, the president’s race couldn’t matter less. The problem is his ideology, a gun-grabbing fanaticism that they have opposed for decades, as seen in the anti-Bill Clinton stickers and T-shirts that are still visible in some parts of the show. But the ideology has never been quite as threatening. “Within a month everyone knew that we were right about Obama,” says Mark Koernke, the militia leader and radio host sometimes known as “Mark from Michigan,” who was freed from prison in 2007 after serving a six-year sentence for assaulting police, fleeing, and resisting arrest.
James Delk and his namesake son say that they’ve bought more ammo and supplies not just because they fear what might become illegal under Obama, but because they fear what could happen in an unarmed, increasingly economically disparate society. “I stocked up on food a little bit,” says the elder James Delk. “I’ve got one bedroom I converted into a food pantry. If it keeps getting worse, and it seems like it is, people are going to start breaking into your home to get food. You need to try to protect your family.”
“Now, I hope that Obama succeeds,” interjects the younger James Delk, “as long as he obeys the Constitution. They should enforce the laws they have instead of taking it out on innocent gun owners.”
Plenty of Knob Creek attendees echoed those sentiments. They forked over as much as $125 for short sessions with AK-47s, and as little as $20 to fire their own guns into the smaller of the event’s two ranges. Charles and Daisy Joan Brittain were among the people who’d driven up to shoot their heavy artillery on the big range, their Tennessee drivers’ licenses pinned to their chests in a new security measure. They lounged all day in a tent stocked with drinks, Nutter Butters, Hostess Donuts and cupcakes, shooting a Browning M-2HB, an M-16, and other guns, talking to friends they’d seen six months or a year ago.
The thousands of attendees who only showed up to shoot could avoid some of the more extreme political elements at the event, even if the extremists were hard to miss. The Barack Obama “Birthers,” who believe that the president cannot prove that he is an American citizen, were present in a table located close to the main range, near the NRA’s sign-up booth. It’s a location that allows them to pass out fliers for RiseUpAmerica.com, with a 10-point explanation of how “Barry Soetoro” could be removed from the presidency, to anyone walking through to the rest of the event. “He’s an illegal alien!” shouts Theresa Padgett, one of their volunteers. “We have an illegal alien running the country.”
“We need your help,” says Carl Swensson, the group organizer who has put together a “citizen jury” to indict the president. “They can’t go across the country and arrest everybody, although they do have pretty good facilities in the FEMA camps,” he says, referring to a conspiracy theory about the government building holding centers for dissidents. In the early afternoon Swensson and Padgett were joined by Orly Taitz, an attorney who has filed multiple lawsuits challenging the president’s citizenship, and they got organizers to read an announcement about their effort over the loudspeakers. By the end of the day they have collected at least 400 signatures, and dozens more from retired military members who wanted to sign on to one of Taitz’s lawsuits. Still, some people who signed onto the Obama citizenship petitions are grim about the chances of surviving this presidency with something as quick and easy as a legal disqualification.
Alan, a registered nurse from Illinois, asks whether last week’s massacre in Binghamton, N.Y. was a set-up. “How many government shooters or special ops teams,” he asks, “how many guys were in there killing people just so they could make gun owners look bad?” He’s not convinced by media reports about the massacre, especially because the shooter killed himself. “These people always kill themselves. They’re either mind-controlled or they’re set up.”
Alan says that he gets the real story on the threat to gun-owners from Mark Koernke, the militia leader who hangs around the show until the end, wearing Swiss camouflage and carrying copies of “How to Start and Train a Militia Unit.” He thinks that the revolution against the government in Washington and “the corporation of the United States” will begin this year, kicked off by some Lexington and Concord stand-off. He gives one attendee some advice about how to take care of his Mauser.
“When this is used in the next war,” Koernke says, “it’ll be part of the victory weapons that liberated America. ‘Yeah, my granddaddy used this in 2011! It was a hell of a fight!’”
*View a photo essay of the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot here. *