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Automatic Weapons Are Legal, But It Takes A Lot To Get One Of The 630,000 In The U.S.

Heath Druzin
Boise State Public Radio
Roy Cagnacci drives his Vietnam-era Ford Mutt mounted with a belt-fed machine gun at the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors’ Association annual Pumpkin Shoot.";

In most people's minds, machine guns are the province of wars and gangster movies. But for some hobbyists, they're coveted collectors' items – albeit heavily regulated, expensive and hard to come by.

On a blustery fall day at Black's Creek Public Shooting Range in Ada County, Idaho, an arsenal's been lined up: Included are representatives from just about every major war the U.S. fought (and a few it didn't.) Across the range, in the sagebrush desert of Southern Idaho, a handful of hapless orange gourds await a solemn fate.

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
A pumpkin with bullet holes at the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association annual pumpkin shoot at Black's Creek Public Shooting Range east of Boise, Idaho.

"Pumpkins are pretty tough. You have to shoot them a lot before they start coming apart," said Scott Pingree, a long-time member of the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association (IAWCA), with a smile."Who would have thought?"

Pingree and dozens of his fellow IAWCA members are gathered for the group's annual Great Pumpkin Fun Shoot. It is exactly what it sounds like: members haul out their favorite prized automatic weapons and take aim at the autumn fruit.

IAWCA champions collecting automatic weapons — guns that keep firing until the shooter releases the trigger or the magazine runs out of ammunition  — as a hobby. Its members are part of an unusual subculture of gun collectors.

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
A bullet-pocked PT Cruiser after the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association annual Pumpkin Shoot at the Black's Creek Public Shooting Range, east of Boise, Idaho.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as of 2017, there were 630,000 machine guns in the U.S. That, however, is a fraction of the roughly 400 million guns in America.

So how does anyone come to own one of these guns?

Automatic weapons are governed by legislation from a bygone era, unfamiliar to many, one of the last vestiges of stringent federal gun control.

Specifically, the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA), which was prompted by rampant gangland violence often perpetrated by the likes of Al Capone with the Thompson submachine gun. You may know the Thompson by its nickname, the "Tommy gun", known for its distinctive round drum magazine.

It takes a lot to get your hands on one of these guns.

"These weapons entail the necessity for a background check," said David Nielsen, an attorney specializing in firearms issues and president of the IAWCA. "[The] FBI looks at you, you have to send in fingerprints and photographs, and you do a transfer tax along with each weapon transaction costing $200."

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
A member of the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association checks his ammunition during the group's annual Pumpkin Shoot. Machine guns are one of the most heavily regulated categories of weapon in the U.S. and fall under a rare example of stringent federal gun control.

In other words, unlike most guns, you can't just show up at Walmart and take one home.

It can take close to a year to get approved to purchase each machine gun.

Plus, because it has been illegal for civilians to buy new machine guns since 1986, only used guns are available on the market. That means it's not only a lengthy process, but an expensive one.

"If you want a cheap hobby — I don't know — stay at home," Pingree said.

Pingree's not kidding.

A single machine gun often runs into the tens of thousands of dollars and that's before purchasing ammunition for the gun. That can run as high as $5 a round.

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
Scott Pingree of the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association talks about some of the classic rifles from around the world in his collection.

Making new machine guns for civilians was all but banned in 1986 as part of a compromise in the Firearms Owners' Protection Act. That's when prices for machine guns began to skyrocket.

Depending on how you look at it, the regulation of machine guns could either be a gold standard for gun control or proof that responsible gun owners should be left alone. Machine guns covered by the 1934 National Firearms Act have never been used in a mass shooting in America.

Howard Wolfe, who spent 30 years with the ATF, said part of the reason for that is the heavy scrutiny machine gun owners receive from the government. These guns are the most heavily regulated, legally owned weapons in the country.

Still, Wolfe thinks it would be impractical to do the same thing for far more numerous semi-automatic rifles, like AR-15s.

"Back when the assault weapons ban was first proposed, there was talk of registering so-called assault weapons or so-called semi-automatic assault weapons," he said. "And I remember being in a meeting where the chief of the NFA branch at the time said if we added all semi-automatic assault weapons to the NFA it would take the entire budget of the bureau to maintain that system."

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
A member of the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association takes part in the group's annual Pumpkin Shoot in Southern Idaho. There are strict controls on the transfer of machine guns in the U.S. but there are still about 630,000 legally owned fully-automatic weapons in the country.

Back at the IAWCA's annual pumpkin shoot, Pingree said some gun control advocates blame guns for the actions of a few bad actors. With more education, he says, they might have a more nuanced view.

"When you don't know, you imagine the worst about anything," says Pingree, "and plus, when you get all the news that's all bad about an item or something has been misused, it automatically gets a label."

But most collectors at the Pumpkin Shoot seem more interested in explaining the science and history of their guns than talking policy.

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
Jacob Stafford, of the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association, unloads equipment for the group's annual Pumpkin Shoot. Hardcore collectors can go through a lengthy bureaucratic process to legally acquire machine guns, often waiting months to get approval for a single purchase.

The machine guns they set up include key examples of 20th Century machine gun design: from a 1939 Finnish model on skis,to a "Miami Vice"-era "Tommy gun"; to a Vietnam-era, belt-fed "pig" mounted on top of a similar vintage Ford 4X4.

That's part of what sets machine gun collectors apart from typical gun owners: they're not getting them primarily to shoot or for self-defense, but rather as collector's items, according to David Yamane, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who studies American gun culture.

"[They] aren't getting them because they're high-tech military weapons. They're mostly getting them for historic purposes," he said. "So you'll find among people who collect machine guns a very passionate interest in military history or the history of firearms technology itself."

Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio
Ken Jenkins readies one of the more than 20 machine guns in his collection to fire at the Idaho Automatic Weapons Collectors' Association Great Pumpkin Fun Shoot at a range east of Boise, Idaho.

Ken Jenkins counts himself among that group.

At the pumpkin shoot he was setting up a few of the couple dozen machine guns he has in his collection.

"I would say it's like the confluence of where hydrocarbons and steel meet," he said.

He has a detailed history and mental manual ready for each. Jenkins says he especially likes tinkering with and keeping nearly 80-year-old weapons in working order.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.