” Machine guns, cannons, drones, exploding fish monsters, and a surprising cast of characters at Arizona’s Big Sandy Shoot.
By Terry Greene Sterling
Kenton Tucker has shot machine guns most of his life. He owns several, including, he says, Errol Flynn’s machine gun. Tucker, a tidy, middle-aged man with a red mustache, is a principal in MG Shooters LLC, which twice a year sponsors a machine gun shoot at its secluded range in the Arizona high desert. The Big Sandy Shoot is billed as the largest in the United States. It has an unusually wide firing range that stretches for a quarter-mile; about 200 machine gunners can fire their weapons simultaneously at exploding targets and drones. During the three-day event, about 3 million rounds of ammunition are expended.
This vast arsenal of machine guns—and their owners—are tightly regulated. Machine guns have long been among the nation’s most regulated firearms. Non-military or non-law-enforcement civilians, like the guys at the Big Sandy Shoot, are required to undergo strict background checks before the federal government allows them to buy a machine gun.
Background checks were the cornerstone of gun control legislation that failed to pass in the Senate this year. Gun control advocates had hoped the measure had sufficient momentum to pass in the wake of Adam Lanza’s slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. But it didn’t, thanks to lobbying by gun industry groups. A recent Pew report says most Americans don’t think gun control legislation will pass this year.
As gun control debates wax and wane, and despite the fact that machine guns are already subjected to some of the strictest gun control measures advocates could hope for, there’s been little scrutiny of the machine gun community to see just how well gun control works—or doesn’t—in America.
The Big Sandy Shoot attracts hundreds of people who chafe at gun control yet seem inordinately proud that they have passed background checks that allow them to own machine guns. They’re mostly old white guys, and they’re mostly Republicans, and they hate to admit they’re Exhibit A for the efficacy of gun control.
Machine guns are true assault weapons; they are fully automatic, meaning that one pull of the trigger fires more than one round. (Semi-automatic guns, like the ones used in many mass shootings in the United States, are not true assault weapons because they require one pull of the trigger for each round.) In the United States, machine guns have been highly regulated since passage the National Firearms Act of 1934, and a series of laws that followed tightened restrictions on machine gun owners. While most Americans can legally buy guns without background checks via private sales and gun shows, machine gun purchasers wait for months as their background checks are being processed by the feds. And while most Americans can buy modern non-assault weapons easily, machine gun owners aren’t allowed to own any machine gun manufactured after 1986. In a nutshell, unlike many gun sales in the United States, machine gun sales are carefully tracked and taxed by federal authorities.
Tucker is wary of journalists, whom the machine gun world generally views as shills for liberals who want to disarm America. But after meeting with photographer Marie Baronnet and me in Scottsdale, he agrees to let us cover the shoot with no restrictions.
We almost don’t make the required shooters meeting on the first day of the shoot because we take our time on the road. From Phoenix the highway winds through salmon-pink sand flats studded with cactuses to Wickenburg, famous for its dude ranches and addiction recovery centers. We cruise past curio stores and horse pastures and catch Highway 93, which knifes into the Arizona badlands. The mountains are jagged and parched.
At Milepost 148, tourists snap pictures of Nothing, Ariz., a cluster of boarded-up, sun-chewed shacks that once housed an All Mart and a gas station. A warning is scrawled in black spray paint: “No Trespassing. Private Property. Keep Out.”
West of Nothing we pass a biker bar, a barbecue joint, a trailer park and a log furniture store, which pretty much sums up the commercial center of downtown Wikieup, population 133. We’re well into Mohave County now, and it feels like militia country. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh hung out with his friend and terrorism accomplice Michael Fortier in Mohave County. Jason Bush, the border vigilante condemned to die for slaughtering a 9-year-old girl and her father during a bloody home invasion, was arrested in Mohave County. About 202,000 people live in the county, which sprawls over 13,470 square miles. It’s a good place be a hermit or play war games.
We veer right onto Trout Creek Road, follow the arrow on the white poster board sign that reads “Big Sandy Shoot.” Five miles of dusty, up-down, windy dirt road later, we descend into a valley where spectators are allowed to camp and have tailgate parties.
We register at a folding table, then drive a rutted road leading up a steep, rocky bluff to the fabled Big Sandy Range. Camouflage nets separate dozens of shooting stations. Most are equipped with folding tables and chairs, tools, ice chests, metal ammo cans, wooden ammo boxes, and machine guns on tripods.
The machine guns face the target area, a wide, dry wash. Dozens of white barrels—the targets—line the wash. The target area is “backstopped” first by its own eroded bank, and then a cratered hill, and then a mountain. The layers keep rogue rounds from escaping and killing a cow or coyote. Yellow police tape flaps in the wind, marking the boundary between the target area and shooting stations. The shooters have set up campsites a few feet behind their machine guns. Some will sleep in RVs, others in large trucks and tents.
The shooters are mostly middle-aged or older white men dressed in camouflage or hunting gear, baseball caps, and dark glasses. They are gathered around Tucker, who gives last-minute safety instructions.
When he finishes, the shooters hurry to their stations.
A signal horn blares.
A red flag shoots up a pole.
Someone yells: “Fire in the hole!”
The machine gunners start shooting, and yellow smoke sours the air. I’ve got my black-and-yellow ear protectors on but still hear the cacophony of tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tic-tic-tic-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of the smaller machine guns interspersed with a nerve-rattling thunderous kettledrum-on-steroids sequence BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. It’s the sound of .50-caliber machine guns, designed to flatten armored vehicles and low-flying aircraft.
I try not to wince as I adjust my loop earrings under the ear protectors and consider the journalistic challenges ahead. I want to know how real gun control works. Who are these shooters who pass the rigorous background checks? Will they open up to me? Are they especially thin-skinned in the wake of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook? It’s late March. Arizona is in the middle of the fray: Recently retired Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head by a gunman near a Tucson-area Safeway store in 2011, and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, are campaigning for gun control legislation. Even Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake seems to be leaning toward the proposed legislation.
Machine guns are already tightly regulated, but will these shooters chafe at regulation of their other guns? Looking down the firing line, I see other guns that aren’t as restricted: semi-automatic pistols and rifles. There’s also a cannon.
A cannon isn’t technically a machine gun, since it fires one round at a time. But shooters can shoot anything at the Big Sandy Shoot, including homemade bowling ball launchers.
I join several ear-protected onlookers staring at the cannon. Someone says it was built in 1942. We’re careful not to stand directly behind, in case it backfires.
The cannon guy is oblivious to the attention. He’s a graceful, slender man with a cryptic smile. He looks to be in his 40s and wears a Panama hat, an immaculate sports shirt and tailored slacks, as though he’ll soon be heading off to a golf game at the club. He’s in a cannon-firing Zen trance, mechanically loading and shooting, loading and shooting, loading and shooting. Later, I ask him his name. He won’t give it. He doesn’t want to be photographed. He looks rich.
But then again, there must be a lot of rich people here. Machine guns sell for tens of thousands of dollars, thanks to Ronald Reagan. In 1986 the Republican president signed the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, which prohibited the general public from owning, buying, or selling machine guns manufactured after the 1986 law took effect. Broadly, the law says military and law enforcement officials can still own machine guns, but civilians can only own machine guns that were grandfathered in.
“Machine guns available to the public are a finite resource,” Jose Wall, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix, told me before I left for the shoot. “So what’s in circulation back then  is in circulation now.” And that’s a little less than 100,000 machine guns, Wall told me.
All of this explains why from the get-go the machine guns at the Big Sandy Shoot seem always to be giving the shooters trouble. Something about the way the shooters use wrenches and rubber hammers to coax the guns to shoot again reminds me of taxistas tinkering with ancient Fords in Havana.
Kenton Tucker’s business partner in MG Shooters LLC is Ed Hope. He’s a 71-year-old retired high school teacher who owns about 30 machine guns. He’s a Democrat who voted for Barack Obama and a member of the National Rifle Association.
Hope sits in his quad, smiling, taking a break from driving up and down the range to monitor shooters. This shoot is just so much fun, he says. He asks if I’ve seen “the fish.” I have. It’s a hollow Volkswagen Beetle-size black-and-white shark-type monster. It has nasty eyes, four upper teeth, and a long, red tongue that licks the ground. When the range is “cold” and no one is allowed to shoot, the fish monster will be loaded with explosives and towed to the target area, where the shooters will blow it up.
Hope and Tucker have been putting on shoots for 25 years, and they know gun guys like to shoot “reactive” targets, meaning targets that explode when you shoot them. Hope and Tucker bought the Big Sandy property, which spans 1 square mile, about 10 years ago, because it is so remote that you can safely shoot and explode as many targets as you want. So far no one has been injured, Hope says. The Big Sandy shoots are a “full-time job” for Tucker and Hope, who won’t disclose earnings derived from the shoot. For Big Sandy shoots, they hire 30 people to help monitor the range, direct traffic, and sell tickets. In three days about 600 spectators will pay $25 to watch about 200 shooters, who pay $250 to shoot.
“Most of my shooters are upper-income professionals,” Hope says. The monster .50-caliber Browning can cost $25,000, for instance, and all the government regulation is “an incredible pain.” It might take six or seven months to complete a machine gun sale, called a “transfer.” What’s more, Hope says, machine guns are “hungry and you have to feed them ammo.”
Eric Lutfy is at the Big Sandy Shoot to sell ammunition. He has been in the “gun business” since he was 18. He lives in Laveen, Ariz., and is the president of Thunderbird Cartridge Co. Inc., a purveyor of reloading components and reloaded ammunition. Ammo is stored in neatly labeled boxes beneath a folding table behind the shooter stations. A whiteboard lists his prices: A count of 150 tracer .50-caliber rounds sells for $300, for instance.
Reloaded ammunition is basically recycled and rebuilt ammunition. After you shoot a gun, the spent casing will fall to the ground near you. If you happen to own a reloading machine, you can prime and resize the used casing, fill it with gunpowder, and cap it with a new projectile. It’s tedious, hard work, but if you shoot a lot, it’s cheaper than buying new ammunition.
Ammunition costs are skyrocketing, due in part to nationwide hoarding, which inflates the price of ammunition, which causes more ammo hoarding. Michael Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Association, an industry group, says ammunition manufacturers now “work round the clock” to fill consumer demand. For 34 straight months, he says, gun sales have gone up, and so have attendant ammunition sales. In 2012 combined retail sales for guns and ammo totaled $6 billion.
Gun control proponents suggest the gun industry is driving a profitable panic. They say the industry is needlessly frightening gun owners into thinking their guns and ammo will be taken from them via gun control legislation. Bazinet says it’s not true. Consumer demand simply exceeds manufacturing capability, he says. He agrees, though, that if people think “access might be limited,” they will buy more ammo and guns.
John Watson and his friends have brought 5,000 rounds of ammo to the Big Sandy Shoot. They’ve reloaded some of the ammo at home during “loading bees.” Watson, a 69-year-old retired fire marshal and Vietnam vet who lives in the Phoenix area, also brings along a mannequin named Mary Lou.
The mannequin is dressed like a French Resistance fighter and stands by the shooting station Watson shares with his friends. He got the mannequin from his wife’s consignment store and has been bringing her to the shoot for several years, dressing her each year in a different military uniform. Mary Lou is a fixture at the shoot, along with Watson’s plastic pink flamingoes and his 1958 Airstream.
To Watson, the Big Sandy Shoot is “Super Bowl, Nascar, and the World Series all wrapped into one.” He has been attending the shoots since 2006, and he’s recruited friends who share a shooting station, which has a blue-tarp floor covered with spent casings. Their machine guns rest on tripods. Shawn Rhodes, a former paramedic, and Bill Rhodes, a software engineer, both wear beige MG Shooters T-shirts. Another friend, David Stevens, a theater technician (he’s a got tattoo that reads “AITA,” which stands for “Acceptance Is The Answer”), brought along two semi-automatic rifles that resemble AK-47s.”