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Machine Gun Shoot makes it look fun

It's probably no surprise that this is not my idea of a great way to spend the Fourth of July: blasting away at disembodied mannequin heads or making sieves of the fenders and quarter panels of an old Ford Thunderbird with vintage Thompson submachine guns and fully automatic M-16s.

I work for the St. Petersburg Times, organ of the Socialist Party, and want to take away everybody's guns. Right?

Not quite.

I like hunting, or the idea of it, especially plentiful game like deer. Shotguns and rifles have a purpose.

I can see why, say, a single woman in a rough neighborhood might feel the need for a handgun. I don't want to stop her from getting one, though I think there would be a lot less need if getting one weren't so easy.

Then we come to assault rifles, or, if you object to that term, military-style weapons, which as far as I can see just cater to the idea that decent, gun-owning people have to be ready to do battle with the rest of us.

"Criminals are in control,'' read one bumper sticker on a pickup at the Hernando Sportsman's Club annual Fourth of July Machine Gun Shoot.

No. They aren't. Our Sheriff's Office does a good job, and one thing I learned from covering it for several years — when the crime rate was higher than it is now — is that real killers are rare and usually victimize people they know.

So, that's what I really don't like about assault rifles: that they promote the ugly idea that we need to fear or intimidate our fellow citizens. If it were politically feasible, I'd love to see these weapons banned. (It's not, apparently, so please, AR-15 owners, spare me your outraged e-mails: you're not a persecuted minority.)

The Machine Gun Shoot takes this warrior-without-a-war mentality one step further. You get to hold and fire not just a semiautomatic knockoff of a mass killing machine, but the real thing.

Then I rolled up to the parking lot and revised my thinking, at least slightly.

I saw a line of people firing a mix of semi- and fully automatic weapons into a range backed by a sand embankment. I saw the shells pile up at their feet and several rows of spectators behind them.

It was deafening, dusty and — especially considering that the targets included plastic heads, old computer monitors painted with smiley faces and several shot-up cars (imagine Bonnie and Clyde's last Ford but with several times as many bullet holes) — somewhat gruesome.

But nobody was getting hurt. Everybody appeared to be having fun. And this being the Fourth of July, it seemed right that this free country should allow as many different kinds of fun as possible.

While working for another newspaper, I interviewed a gun store owner who was generous enough to let me fire a fully automatic AK-47. I learned that it is nearly impossible for an untrained shooter to keep machine-gun fire from spraying wildly out of control, and that unleashing all that power with a bend of your index finger is a thrill.

It took me a while on Saturday to find somebody willing to admit this.

Dave Gelbosis, senior executive officer of the club and owner of several machine guns, told me that fully automatic weapons are not much different from other expensive, impractical pieces of machinery.

The public sale of machine guns was outlawed in 1986, he said, meaning there are a small number in circulation nationwide, perhaps 100,000, and that because of this scarcity they often cost more than $10,000.

"I suppose it's just a neat thing to have — an expensive toy like a Harley or a boat,'' he said.

Neil Batelli of Jacksonville is a gun dealer who had an array of semiautomatic rifles spread out on a table, ready to be fired.

"It's more of a collection than anything,'' he said.

Finally, I talked to Charmaine Parrino of St. Petersburg, whose face was flushed with — well, probably, the brutal early afternoon sun — but also the rush from firing a few bursts from a Thompson gun.

"It's just exhilarating,'' she said. "Once you shoot, it gets in your blood. … I wished I'd joined the military, just for the excitement.''

Machine Gun Shoot makes it look fun 07/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 8:15pm]

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