As the sun dropped behind the tree line at the Knob Creek Gun Range, the crowd of 8,500 began pressing forward against the fence that separated them from the objects of their fascination. The mostly white, mostly male spectators had traveled from all over to watch what Knob Creek has become famous for, its Saturday night machine gun shoot. Since 9 a.m. the day before, the range had been a ballistic bacchanal as dozens of shooters, armed with guns that traced the entire history of automatic weaponry, raked an almost ceaseless barrage of bullets at propane tanks, busted home appliances, old jalopies, boats and SUVs. Casings cascaded like confetti. Black smoke from burning cars billowed into the clear Kentucky sky. But all this was merely a warmup exercise to that night's spectacle, when the riddled appliances were replaced with 50-gallon drums of gasoline and diesel. When the range master yelled "Fire!" this time, the darkness was sliced by the bright lines of tracer fire. A wall of sound was followed immediately by a dozen fiery mushroom clouds. The cheers of the crowd filled the gaps between the gunfire.
In another political universe where a different GOP nominee was leading in the polls, this three-day-long salute to the glories of the Second Amendment could have been an early celebration for gun rights supporters in anticipation of the victory of President Ted Cruz or President John Kasich. But with Donald J. Trump atop the GOP ticket, that's not the way it felt at Knob Creek. In other parts of the nation, far beyond this former Army gun range halfway between Louisville and Fort Knox, Trump was shedding supporters faster than a Gatling gun spitting shell casings. And while regulars to the machine gun shoot are still likely to vote for Trump, the ones we spoke to were not blind to his sinking poll numbers and had come to terms with the idea that the battle, still three weeks away, was already over.
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"Trump can't win," said Steve, who wouldn't give his last name because he didn't want his house blown up (who he was afraid of wasn't clear). Steve, whose accent suggested a hometown somewhere in New England, said that without women, blacks and Hispanics, Trump couldn't overcome Hillary Clinton. "And that's game over. He lost as soon as he picked his running mate. You can't win with two white guys anymore. If he would have picked a woman, she would have been forced to defend him."
Steve had carefully planned his political retreat, which became evident as he laid out his strategy for defeating the Clinton administration's anti-gun agenda: Retain control of the Senate at all costs.
"With a big set of balls, they could stop any Supreme Court nominee—as many as she gives 'em, because the Constitution doesn't say there needs to be nine justices," Steve said. "The best thing that can happen in Washington is nothing, gridlock."
The politics of the semi-annual Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot have always been both overt and too obvious to bear talking about openly. Almost by definition, someone who has driven 700 miles from Florida for the pleasure of firing a M2 Quad-50 believes in the inviolability of the 2nd Amendment. This is not a persuadable group that meanders to the polls with a list of pros and cons to weigh. This is a segment of the electorate that locks onto a single issue with a sniper's focus: Are you coming for my guns or not?
Knob Creek is where Rand Paul launched his upstart Senate bid in 2009. Paul was back this year, very much in his element. Indeed his yard signs lined the entrance to the range. Paul made his Knob Creek appearance this year on Sunday, the calm after the firestorm of Saturday night, but he gave no speech. He was just there to support the troops and shoot some guns, a U.S.-made M240 to be exact. In May, three months after he dropped out of the presidential race, Paul endorsed Trump for president. Although Paul supports the top of his ticket, his campaign's advance team didn't bother to put out any Trump signs next to Paul's, raising questions of whether that endorsement was still valid. The senator later confirmed through a spokesperson that his Trump endorsement was still in effect. He just doesn't like to talk about it—another sign of the reduction of Trump at this stage in the race and of Paul following the lead of his majority leader, Mitch McConnell: Support Trump, but not too much.
For a candidate who received the earliest endorsement the NRA has ever given in a presidential race, there was a conspicuous lack of visible enthusiasm for the GOP nominee. The number of "Make America Great Again" ball caps in attendance was modest, and the only visible signage for Trump was at the Jefferson County Republican Party booth near the entrance to the range, and that was no bigger than the Gary Johnson for President table set up beside it. But inside the gun show, where attendees could purchase fully licensed, fully automatic weapons, there was no shortage of anti-Hillary and anti-Obama merchandise for sale, including T-shirts reading "Black Guns Matter" and "Hillary for Prison"; bootleg copies of the Anarchist Cookbook; and Nazi patches, swastika coins and KKK membership tokens. None of that stuff was sold inside the Knob Creek range house, but event organizers didn't appear to mind other vendors dealing in it.
OPTICS: Kentucky's Machine Gun Paradise (click to view gallery) | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO
Jim, a Pennsylvania businessman, has been coming to Knob Creek for going on 20 years. Like Steve, he didn't want to give his last name because of a wariness of the media, and, like Steve, he didn't think Trump could win because, by his estimation, Trump can't win Pennsylvania. And without Pennsylvania, Jim said, Trump couldn't get the 270 electoral votes he needs to win. Jim still intends to vote for Trump because of the Supreme Court implications. He's voting for Sen. Pat Toomey in his closely watched reelection race, because, like Steve, Jim is just hoping that the GOP holds the Senate. Like many business owners, Jim was exasperated by regulations that he felt were arbitrary and expensive. He told a stemwinder of a tale about a fellow in a similar business and what happened to him, how he fought the government over needless regulation and won, but was still out $15,000 in legal fees. "What kind of government is that?" Jim asked. His body language suggested his question answered itself. Under Hillary, "it'll only get worse," suggesting many business owners like him would go under, "and that's the way she wants it."
While Jim didn't mind discussing politics with a curious observer, for him the machine gun shoot was less about politics than it was about the camaraderie of a unique group of collectors, "What other investment," he asked, "can you buy for $1,000, play with for five years, and then resell for $5,000?" Jim and his buddies killed time on Friday by shooting full 12-ounce cans of Coca-Cola products out of a modified AR rifle for someone else to hit midair with a shotgun.
In the expo area of the gun range, a curious shopper could find a fully automatic M-16 with a transferable license for $26,000. Or if that was too pricey, an Uzi for $9,000. (Although American citizens have been prohibited from buying fully automatic weapons since the Reagan administration, machine guns that were already in private hands before the ban was passed were grandfathered in, and those licenses were made transferable.) So for buyers with the money (and without a felony on their records), fully automatic weapons were available as investments at Knob Creek. The value of weapons on display at the range was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, from the vintage European guns to a giant Civil War-era cannon that made its presence known with a thundering boom and a giant cloud of white smoke.
To anyone troubled by the legality of private citizens owning these sorts of weapons, shooters like Jim were quick to point out that fully automatic weapons have not been involved in any mass shooting in recent memory, with the one exception, Jim conceded, of the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout, when two men attempted a bank robbery with fully automatic weapons with drum magazines and exchanged nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition with police—and those guns, Jim noted, were semi-automatics that had been illegally modified into fully automatics, not like the licensed automatic weapons at the Knob Creek shoot. And yet, a fixture in most of the recent mass shootings, the 30-round extended magazine, was for sale inside the Knob Creek range house for $19.95 apiece. Should the sale of extended magazines be curtailed? Wouldn't that save lives without being too much a burden upon the 2nd Amendment?
A spectator holds a Trump for President lawn sign while watching shooters destroy targets with machine guns. | M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico
"You mean like New York?" Jim asked. "New York tried to restrict magazines to seven rounds, but it got thrown out by the courts." Jim was right again. A New York State court ruled that the seven-round limit was "entirely untethered" to the rationale of stopping mass shootings, a decision affirmed by the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals a year ago this month.
On Saturday afternoon, the crowd sweltered in the unseasonable heat as people scrounged for spots in the shade. Spectators lolled on the bleachers, waiting for the heat to break at nightfall and the big show to begin.
On those bleachers, during a 30-minute lull between sessions of machine gunners laying out walls of suppressive fire, a man with a trimmed white beard, red T-shirt and a black hat identifying himself as a Vietnam veteran began talking to everyone around him but to no one in particular about old generals and battles past, about how George Patton would have taken Russia after World War II and about how Douglas MacArthur would have taken China during the Korean War if Harry S. Truman hadn't stopped them both. He talked about how the car crash that killed Patton was likely a setup, an assassination conspiracy, because Truman didn't want Patton to come home as a war hero and run for president against him. If Patton had become president, the veteran told us, he certainly would have taken Russia and let MacArthur off the leash to take China, and then America would rule the world and we wouldn't have all these problems that we have now. He reminded us that Patton believed in reincarnation, that in a past life Patton said he was a French officer under Napoleon, and before that in the Roman Legion, that if he had been reincarnated in the past, that maybe he would be reincarnated in the future.
The veteran talked about General Omar Bradley's autobiography, in which Bradley wondered aloud: What would have happened if the American generals had been allowed to act? Was the veteran about to tell us that Donald J. Trump was the reincarnation of General Patton? Or that Hillary Clinton was no better than Truman? But the veteran didn't advance the argument any further, turning instead toward a feeling of resignation and acceptance: It wasn't history that was to blame, it was politics.
"But that's how it's always been, fellas," the veteran told us. "That's how it's always been."
And with that, the veteran excused himself, telling us he was off to find a cup of hot coffee at the snack bar, and disappeared into the teeming crowd.
On the range, workers shoveled mounds of spent casings piled up like drifted snow.
James Higdon is a freelance writer based in Lousiville, covering Kentucky for The Washington Post, POLITICO Magazine, and Thrillist. His book, Cornbread Mafia: the story of the biggest marijuana syndicate in American history was published in 2012.