The Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky advertises its World Famous, twice-a-year Machine Gun Shoot as "Family Friendly" entertainment. The slogan: "Nothing brings families together like blowing stuff apart...safely."
I won't deny the red-blooded-American joy of firing automatic weapons at exploding targets.
Still I have to ask: What's up with the little kids in Nazi shirts?
I was on site at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot fewer than 20 minutes last Saturday before I passed a shaved-head lad with with a Totenkopf death head on his chest. (The Totenkopf was the symbol of the Nazi SS division that ran death camps like Auschwitz during the Holocaust.)
The shirt looked brand new. I took that to mean the kid or whoever gave it to him bought it from one of the dozen or so permitted vendors who openly sold white supremacist merchandise. This included a wide selection of t-shirts and flags bearing symbols popular with racist skinheads and neo-Nazis. (And no, I'm not counting Confederate battle flags.) Also for sale were the race war fantasy novels Hunter and The Turner Diaries by William Pierce, founder of the National Alliance, a notorious hate group. A Friends of the NRA fundraising booth was located within sight of a stall of swastika flags.
Video- Guns and neo-Nazi merchandise
Guns for sale at the machine gun shoot ranged from high-priced fully automatic rifles and handguns equipped with silencers offered by federally licensed gun dealers all the way down to $100 used 9mms for sale in the parking lot. Apart from the official machine gun shoot vendors, festival-goers are permitted to sell firearms on the grounds. This leads to a freewheeling cash-and-carry market.
Widespread media coverage of the machine gun shoot has for years been fawning, with the notable exception of a 2009 photo essay in the Washington Independent that not only documented Nazi merch for sale at Knob Creek but also served to infuriate "queen of the birthers" Orly Taitz, who rented a booth that April to sign up members of the military for her loony-tunes lawsuits.
The shoot has been a magnet for extremists since at least the mid-1990s, when militia leaders organized recruitment drives in the festival campground and leadership summits in nearby motels. (The event began in 1979.) Militia literature for sale at the shoot this spring included copies of the U.S. Militiaman's Handbook, a step-by-step guide for "R-2," the second American Revolution.
"When municipal, township, county, or local area law enforcement agents attack or seek to confine or control the U.S. Militia or its individual members, those agencies should be totally eliminated in the initial attack," it advises. "Do not allow any law enforcement agents to escape. Kill them all."
More typical gun show fare included handbooks on how to be a hit man and how to make Semtex, a plastic explosive. Also available were survivalist texts such as How to Survive the Coming Economic Collapse and War, and dozens of different manuals for homemade silencers. My personal favorite: The Handy Dandy Super Duper Junkyard Silencer Book: Or How to Shoot Your Neighbor's Dog Without Getting Caught.
I've attended the machine gun shoot off-and-on since 2006, when I covered it for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Back then I asked Knob Creek Gun Range owner and festival head Kevin Sumner about the sale of extremist materials. "I do not think of us as an extremist or militia gathering, but we do not regulate any items sold," he said. "If someone wants to sell white supremacist and neo-Nazi crap, that's okay with me. If it offends anyone, they don't have to stop at that vendor's table. It's just like strip clubs. I don't care nothing about them and they can be wherever they want. I have the ability to stop in or drive by. This is America and we do have the right to choose. That's why I do not restrict any of the vendors at our show."
From all appearances, Sumner's policy hasn't changed. As a result, the Kentucky machine gun shoot, which is credibly billed as the largest festival of its kind in the world, exhibits the gun show equivalent of a split personality. The rent-a-machine-gun portion of the event is family-oriented. Fathers pay 80 bucks for their young sons to churn up the water of a holler pond with 60 rounds from a Heckler & Koch MP-5. Meanwhile, under the pavilion awning a short walk away, vendors hawk Joseph Goebbels propaganda and SS lightning bolt sweatshirts.
This spring, one of the hottest selling t-shirts at the machine gun shoot read "Armed Infidel" on the front. On the back: "Everything I needed to know about Islam I learned on 9-11." The creator of the shirts, Lexington, Kentucky resident John Lang, told me that he was inspired to make them by watching cable news.
"Every time I turn the TV on it reaffirms what I've seen, that 9/11," Lang said. "They don't like America. You know, they're coming. Everybody's in that denial that they're not gonna be back. Well, this next time when they come back it's gonna be a bigger terror attack."
By "they," Lang clarified, he meant "the radicals."
"But actually, the ones that are saying they come in peace and everything, they're not doing anything to rat 'em out, so they're just as guilty." Lang went on to criticize the recent burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor for making Christians "look bad."
Unlike Lang, most of the hundred-plus vendors at the machine gun shoot wouldn't allow me to film their wares, let alone answer my questions once I identified myself as a reporter. When I turned my camera on the used Glocks for sale by a merchant whose badge read Exhibitor A21, he yelled at me: "Hey, Bud, no pictures!" Referring to a recent undercover gun show sting he said: "All this Bloomberg shit, I don't want to be on the Internet."
Each of the two days I attended the machine gun shoot, I was informed by Knob Creek security guards that a vendor had complained about either my asking questions ("How many swastika flags have you sold today?") or filming their inventory without permission. On Saturday afternoon, I had just finished making a short video of a row of Nazi shirts for sale when two men wearing orange security guard shirts and with handguns and handcuffs on their belts informed me that I was no longer welcome at the event. They helpfully escorted me to the exit.
As we passed the main firing line, a man's voice came over a loudspeaker praying to God on all of our behalf for protection from shrapnel. (In 2008, two spectators were injured at the shoot by flying metal. In 2006, a Virginia man suffered a shrapnel injury when his anti-aircraft machine gun misfired.)
After the prayer, the heavy machine gun shooters opened fire, blowing the hell out of junker cars and boats downrange. A man in Rhodesian Army gear hoisted a toddler onto his shoulders for a better view.
Video- Heavy machine gun fire and exploding targets