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My first night in Louisville, Jim showed me his guns. The born-and-bred Kentucky boy stores them in a hulking safe with a keypad lock, hidden inside a walk-in closet. Over 5 feet tall and almost 4 feet wide, it easily holds Jim's collection of pistols, rifles and handguns, with room to spare. Lining the back of the door is a leather organizer with more guns snugly tucked in its pockets.
One by one, Jim pulled out gun after gun, explaining the provenance of each one. There was his grandfather's Browning SA .22, an antique handgun of gray polished metal. I could tell by the way he handled it that it was heavy. His grandpa "kept it on his nightstand," Jim said, and called it a "squirrel shooter." There was the precision Anschutz target rifle of the finest craftsmanship. And the semiautomatic AR-15, bought prior to the 1994 federal assault-weapon ban (which expired a decade later). Jim's AR-15 looked like a cheap plastic toy, but he assured me his gun was far superior to the ones made now.
In the gun-friendly culture prevalent in Kentucky, Jim's multigenerational collection of guns isn't unusual. What makes him stand out in the community, however, is his stance on gun control. (In fact, his views on background checks and waiting periods — he's for them — are so contentious that he asked me not to use his real name so he wouldn't be recognized at the gun ranges where he is a regular.)
During a phone conversation with him this January, with the shadow of the Sandy Hook shooting massacre in the background, he told me that the variety of guns and gun accessories readily available in his state should frighten me. Within a 20-minute drive of his house, he said, he could legally purchase everything he needed to convert an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, or SAR (which, each time the trigger is pulled, fires once, ejects the empty casing and immediately loads another round), into a fully automatic weapon capable of shooting 100 rounds a pop. All Jim needed was a device known as a bump fire stock, available for purchase online and at gun retailers, gun shows and ranges for $350 to $500.
"I betcha didn't know [you could do that]," Jim said. He was right. I didn't. That's how I found myself in Louisville, Ky., handling Jim's AR-15 — the weapon I would modify with a bump fire.
Jim instructed me to handle the rifle and familiarize myself with the different parts and the sequence of actions required to shoot it. I was surprised how quickly I became proficient at flipping the safety, sliding the bolt open and closed and clicking the ammunition chamber shut with my right index finger. Within 15 minutes I was running through the pre-firing routine smoothly.
A good state for gun owners
The magazine Guns & Ammo ranks Kentucky as No. 5 on its list of best states for gun owners because of its lax gun laws. The state's concealed-carry laws cover all kinds of guns, not just handguns. There is no permit needed to carry a weapon in public (called open carry) and no waiting period to purchase a gun. (Kentucky used to have a wait, also known as a cooling-off period to protect against impulsive acts of violence, but it was abolished recently, along with other restrictions.) And Kentucky has a "stand your ground" law — as made infamous by the Trayvon Martin case in Florida — and there are no restrictions on purchasing SARs or on magazine capacity.
Unsurprisingly then, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence puts Kentucky near the bottom in its 2011 survey of states' regulation policies. It scored just 2 out of a possible 100 points. Only Arizona, Utah and Alaska scored lower, coming in at zero.
In Kentucky, it is entirely legal to purchase a machine gun, which spits out bullets for as long as the trigger is pressed and there is ammunition in the chamber, allowing hundreds of rounds to be fired in a matter of minutes — as opposed to single-shot or semiautomatic weapons, which only fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled.
The buyer has to clear a background check by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: disqualifiers include a felony conviction, a dishonorable discharge from the military or a record of domestic violence. Then a $200 tax stamp is all that separates the buyer from the machine gun, which typically ranges in price from $12,000 to $16,000 for a new model.
In recent months, gun-control laws have become even looser. In March, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law Senate Bill 150, which repeals the six-month state residency requirement to acquire a concealed carry permit. The National Rifle Association praised its passage, saying it was "critical" to one's inherent right to self-defense and that the residency requirement was in fact "discriminatory."
The next day, Jim and I headed out to Knob Creek shooting range, about a 25-minute ride from Louisville. We arrived around noon and went inside to pay our $20 range fee. The Knob, as it is known, is featured in the Country Music Television reality series "Guntucky," about the family-owned and -operated outdoor range famous for letting a person shoot almost any object. If you can drag it out onto the 350-yard range, you can shoot it. The rules have changed slightly over the years because some items, for example, an old toilet, once destroyed, spewed shrapnel that pierced the tires of the range's maintenance vehicles.
The office is in a large aluminum outbuilding with a snack shop, with several lunchroom-style tables where customers can order a hot dog or popcorn, and the main office area in the back, which is more gun store than office.
The Knob's walls are lined with long guns (firearms with long barrels such as rifles and shotguns) and draped with flags — American and Confederate and those of the armed-services branches — and glass cases filled with handguns pack the room's perimeter. Customers can rent a .50-caliber machine gun like ones mounted on armored vehicles for use in war. Pay the $100 fee and, under the close supervision of Knob staff, you can squeeze off 10 rounds from this tremendous weapon.
But the gun range isn't only for serious shooters. Several gun ranges in and around Louisville have family memberships, family-centric events and classes for young shooters. Other ranges host ladies' nights and lunchtime shooting specials with reduced fees. According to its website, the Knob "strives to provide a safe, friendly atmosphere for families to enjoy firearms."
After paying our range fee, we set up on one of the 20 or so shooting tables facing downrange. The range master, an older man with a revolver on his hip, cautioned us to make sure that all gun barrels were pointed downrange and that we had chamber flags (small plastic orange flags inserted in the firing chamber of a gun to show it is unloaded) in and the safety on when not shooting.
The Knob is an outdoor range not far from Louisville famous for letting a person shoot almost any object. If you can drag it out onto the range, you can shoot it.
Jim placed the AR-15 on our table, balancing the barrel on a sandbag for support. I laid out magazines of 20 and 30 rounds next to me; my thumb and forefinger were stained black from loading more than 600 rounds the night before.
I looked through the laser sight, which Jim called a doughnut sight because a red "doughnut" appears on the glass screen to zero in on the target. The first shot I took was maybe 50 yards out: a soda can we set up to watch it blow. I don't remember if it was the first or second shot that sent the can spraying in the air, but it was a rush. I wanted to shoot more things — watermelons, pineapples, proper targets set up farther out.
After the AR-15, I tried a larger-caliber SAR called a .302 and a couple of single-shot rifles. Jim and I shot until our clothes were ringed with sweat and most of our ammo spent. In the 96-degree Kentucky heat, four hours had passed in what seemed like an instant.
At the close of that first day, I asked one of the range workers where I could buy a bump fire. He disappeared from the cash register for a few minutes and returned to present us with small, dusty box containing a bump fire, manufactured by a company called Slide Fire. I paid the $350, slipped the box into my shoulder bag, and Jim and I were on our way.
3 minutes to a machine gun
The only reason to own a Slide Fire or any bump fire stock is for the pleasure of shooting 20 or 30 rounds in mere seconds. No one attaches a Slide Fire to a gun to go deer hunting. Not only is it considered a breach of hunting etiquette; the modified weapon is inaccurate. Someone who is not properly trained or very familiar with its firing style could spray bullets everywhere.
Modifying Jim's AR-15 with my Slide Fire took all of 10 minutes the first time we tried it. The Slide Fire box contained only three objects: a plastic Slide Fire stock (or butt, which is placed against the shoulder when firing), a small square adapter to join the Slide Fire to the body of the weapon and an Allen wrench. We didn't need the wrench. The only tool we required was a long-handled flat-head screwdriver to remove the original pistol grip.
I slid the original stock off by lifting a simple lever, unscrewed and removed the pistol grip, put the Slide Fire adapter where the pistol grip had been, slid the Slide Fire stock into place on the gun, screwed the pistol-grip screw back in and was done. After a couple of tries, following the simple directions on the box, I could make the switch effortlessly in about 3 minutes.
The next day we took the modified SAR back to the range. I asked Jim to try it first, and in a few short bursts Jim emptied a 20-round clip into the dirt 30 yards away.
He turned to me with a surprised smile and yelled, "Well, goddamn!" Clearly, the device didn't disappoint.
It was my turn. The shooting, I found, started in short bursts. Firing the weapon was counterintuitive. Instead of pulling the trigger with my right finger, I had to hold my right hand steady on the pistol grip. My left hand, which was holding up the barrel, became my trigger finger. The movement felt like drawing an arrow back in a bow; the left hand, with pressure, pushed forward while the right hand pulled back.
I got the hang of it in short order. I emptied two 20-round magazines in about a minute, including the time I took to change out the magazines. The power I felt shooting it and the fear of the damage it could do were the recipe for an overwhelming adrenaline rush. It was at once one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life.
The modified SAR looks almost exactly like an unmodified SAR, with only a slight difference in the stock profile. Unless someone knows what to look for, the difference isn't obvious. But the sound is different; it doesn't make the familiar pop-pop-pop of an SAR. A few people approached us on the gun range to tell us they had heard us shooting our "toy," and man, that sounded like fun.
The camaraderie on the range was evident when I took a break from shooting in the snack bar and was approached by Rose, an elderly woman who had come out to the Knob with her son-in-law and grandson. The boys had come to shoot, she said, but Rose just wanted some advice from the range shop's guys about her new .12-gauge shotgun.
Rose also owns a .38-caliber handgun. Both of her guns she keeps for protection, she said. To stay sharp, she practices at home. "I have a little target range set up in my basement," she said. All you need is a bullet trap, she explained, a metal box about 2 feet square that a target is affixed to for shooting practice. The device captures, or traps, the bullets, preventing them from ripping into walls. But the new gun had been giving her trouble, she said.
"I wanted to hold [the shotgun] like this," she said, as she motioned an invisible gun into her armpit, "but they told me I can't hold a gun like that," as it was too big for her. They suggested she get a smaller-caliber gun, one she could hold properly with the butt against her shoulder.
I asked her if she could return the gun. She couldn't, but she wasn't worried about getting her money back, she said, since "there is always someone willing to buy it from you."
The gun show loophole
Rose may not have specifically had gun shows in mind when she spoke about selling her shotgun, but they are notorious for person-to-person sales in which gun owners sell their weapons. Because the guns are considered their property, they are not legally required to perform a background check as licensed dealers must to sell weapons. This is commonly known as the gun-show loophole.
Gun shows are an integral part of the gun culture of the South. They provide meeting places where gun enthusiasts and die-hard Second Amendment supporters gather. A single gun-show aisle might showcase weapons, ammunition, black powder to make your own ammunition and literature as well as supplies to prepare for end-times such as water purifiers, meals ready to eat and a 40-gallon drums of beef jerky.
While I was in Kentucky, there was a gun show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, only an hour and a half away by car. It used to fill five exhibition halls but this year filled only one at the south edge of the grounds. There was a modest line to get in when I arrived on the opening day, and a huge orange sign out front instructed people to "unload weapons now." A woman staffed a plexiglass ticket booth; the cost of entry was $12. A row of Indianapolis police officers sat at a folding table, checking weapons to ensure they weren't loaded. They also ran zip ties through firing mechanisms to guard against accidental discharge.
The licensed gun dealers there came in all sizes. Some booths consisted of just a folding table set up on the concrete floor, while others had elaborate exhibition spaces to show off their products. Each booth I saw was outfitted with a laptop to run instant background checks so people could legally purchase firearms on the spot.
But if I had wanted to evade a background check, I could just as easily have purchased someone else's gun, checked and zip-tied by a policeman, if the price was right, no questions asked.
It took only about 10 minutes at the show before a private seller, an SAR slung over one shoulder, approached me about his weapon. I stood at a booth reading a book on how to modify an SAR into a fully automatic weapon with some minor machine work. "I'm asking $1,000 for this one," he said, gesturing to his rifle. "I built it myself."
And he wasn't alone. Scores of people (the ones I saw were men and mostly white) were walking up and down the aisles, selling their guns. Some would-be sellers even put handwritten flags with an asking price "or best offer" in the barrels of their guns. These were cash-only transactions, I was told, but if I didn't have that much on me, there were ATMs conveniently flanking each of the hall's entrances.
But according to the NRA and other gun-rights advocates, the gun-show loophole — sellers offloading their guns informally in the aisles of guns shows like the one at I attended in Indiana — is a myth. (The NRA didn't respond to my request for interview or comment.)
John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation's Edward Meese Center, a conservative think tank, said in a phone interview that what was a so-called loophole to some could as easily be seen by others as the right of a person to sell his or her personal property, a right that must not be infringed. In a February blog post for the foundation website, he wrote that the data that the gun-show loophole argument is based on — that roughly 40 percent of gun purchases are made at gun shows in private sales — is outdated and unreliable, akin to "citing data about current seat belt usage that is derived from a limited sample taken years before a mandatory seat belt law went into effect or before cars were even required to have seat belts."
If I had wanted to evade a background check, I could have easily purchased a firearm from a private seller at the gun show, no questions asked.
The night before I left Kentucky, Jim removed the bump fire from his AR-15 and replaced it with the original stock. "I could try and sell this for you, if you want," he said, putting it back in its box. But it was just as likely to end up in the corner of his gun closet. He wouldn't be using it again.
I won't be shooting one again either. As this story was being put to bed, the news broke about this week's mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Twelve people dead, eight injured.