All photos by Ryan Dorgan
You might expect a 90mm cannon to make a tremendous sound, but the concussion wave the weapon emits as it hurls a projectile the size of a coffee thermos a mile into the distance surprised me. At the 19th annual Northern Rockies Machine Gun and Cannon Shoot this past June, blasts from the enormous cannon sitting at the end of a quarter-mile-long firing line kicked up clouds of dust so large and thick I couldn't see whether the shots hit their target. One blast wave blew the baseball cap off the head of a spectator next to me, as though we were in a cartoon. The same force sent a—definitely real—fragment of sharp rock into my neck.
The Machine Gun and Cannon Shoot in Casper, Wyoming, is one of only a handful of annual, organized events in America where people come together to shoot military-grade equipment like tanks and fully automatic rifles for fun, according to Stu "Doc" Rubens, one of the event's organizers. Rubens, a retired internal medicine practitioner, launched the event in 1997, when he assembled some fellow machine-gun owners from around the area to shoot out on a ranch.
"It was a cold, nasty spring morning," Rubens told me. "Six people showed up, and we had a great time."
The event evolved over the next decade as the machine-gun owners formed a nonprofit, Wyoming NFA Shooters, and secured larger venues on which to do their thing. Locals and visitors from around the region began renting out their weapons at "shooting stations" so non-owners could pay to experience the giddy thrills of discharging exotic firearms. Proceeds from the gate went to the local fire department—which is to say the shoot became a public affair, albeit a modest one.
"In 2006, there were only ten registered shooting spots, and it was basically, just, people show up and shoot," Gareth West, who runs a local gun-restoration business and is one of the current organizers, told me. "Today, we're up to 72 shooting spots, and it's become a family-oriented event. People are bringing newborns here, unborn children. I've seen the elderly in wheelchairs. You get the whole gamut. A lot of people can relate, obviously, to firearms."
Just about everyone in the United States can relate to guns—even if the nature of those relationships varies tremendously. A week after the Wyoming shooting event, Omar Mateen opened fire with a semiautomatic MCX Sig Sauer rifle inside an Orlando nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding 53 more. Three weeks later, Micah Xavier used a semiautomatic AK-74 SKS rifle to kill five police officers in Dallas. These incidents were just the latest chapters in a long, bloody history of mass shootings in America—a history that prompts certain portions of the country to relate to firearms with a sense of panicked disdain and disgust.
But West bristles at comparisons between his lawfully gun-filled world and that of Mateen—who, he notes, was (temporarily) on the FBI terrorist watch list and arguably shouldn't have been able to buy a gun in the first place. "A gun is only a device," he told me. "It's the intent of the user that's the problem, not the device. When you talk about situations when someone's being shot up by a deranged person, call it what it is."
One of West's goals in hosting the machine-gun event is to demystify and normalize military-grade weapons for the general public. And sure enough, pulling into the event grounds felt a lot like entering any rural Wyoming fair: RVs and pickups parked among sagebrush, vendors selling barbecue sandwiches and T-shirts, attendees milling up and down the midway, and dozens of tents standing in a row, like those ubiquitous canvas outfits you see at farmers' markets and festivals. Except beneath these canopies were tables and racks full of AK-47s, Uzis, Soviet PKMs, .50-caliber sniper rifles, Thompson submachine guns, and a cornucopia of other devices that spit fire and lead (or, in the case of one mortar, bowling balls).
"Basically, any kind of armament you can imagine, we've had it," West said.
At the other end of the firing line from the 90mm cannon, Russ Morgan stood atop his Stuart Tank dressed in Army greens and aviators, chomping a cigar like General Patton. Next to him, two men in Civil War getups plunged powder into the barrel of their replica period cannon. A lust for military history clearly encouraged many participants—Doc Rubens said his interest in war history prompted his first machine-gun purchase. But the line between military reality and fantasy at the event sometimes seemed to blur. Certainly, actual veterans attended—most visibly Bill Black, a retired Navy chief petty officer and the event's official range commander, who through a PA barked announcements and orders from his perch atop a shipping container. But most folks were just there to play war. The big cannon saw action in 1967 during the Six-Day War, when Israel began its occupation of the Gaza Strip and other Palestinian territories. But the giant gun's current owner, Dean Kingersmith, said he only shoots it at events twice a year—and sometimes fires blanks for ceremonies.
Otherwise, he explained, it's just a lawn ornament.
"In Wyoming, a lot of people don't realize they can own a class-three weapon," West told me. Class three (or "title II") refers to devices governed by the National Firearms Act (NFA), a 1934 law passed to reign in Prohibition era gang violence and tweaked by Congress in the 1960s. NFA weapons range from fully automatic machine guns to silencers, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, tanks, cannons, and bazookas—basically anything you've seen in a certain kind of action movie—as well as obscurities like the Marble Game Getter and pen gun.
"As long as you're a legal citizen of the United States and a legal gun owner, you can own a class-three weapon," West, who told me he has a federal firearms license and pays a special occupational tax that allows him to broker class-three sales, explained. Some states have their own gun restrictions, and prospective buyers of class-three weapons nationwide must submit to a background check. But if you have a clean record, a little patience, and, say, $6,500 for a Mac 10 submachine gun or $25,000 for a Thompson, they can be yours.
Barack Obama's presidency has been a hot time for the class three-weapon market. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of applications the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms processed from people looking to make, buy, export, or register NFA firearms increased 256 percent. The number of federal firearms licensees who pay a special occupational tax, like West, and who can therefore manufacture class-three weapons or broker their sales, increased from about 3,600 in 2009 to an estimated 10,000 today.
Popular confusion over whether it's legal to own a machine gun stems largely from high-profile efforts to regulate "assault weapons"—which, as the existence of public machine-gun events illustrates, have been mostly fruitless. Each time a mass shooting makes headlines, a chorus calls for banning weapons like the AR-15, AK-47, or their many derivatives popular among terrorists at home and abroad. But because gun-rights advocates are so politically well-positioned, even the scariest guns—weapons clearly designed for warfare, the closest thing gun control proponents have to low-hanging fruit—remain safe from real regulation.
Responsible hobbyists like West, who aren't hurting anyone blasting off automatic weapons in the boondocks, make it harder to point to the inherent evil in "assault weapons" (a term West rejects as a media creation that has little real bearing on firearms taxonomy). In fact, other than a brazen bank robbery in 1997, the use of actual NFA firearms during criminal acts is relatively rare (mass shootings are almost as a rule perpetrated with semiautomatic weapons that are cheaper and easier to get). And rifles of any kind are used in just a small fraction of violent crimes in the United States.
This has some folks who lobby for gun control wondering whether military-style weapons are the best use of their time. Gun violence is an epidemic in the United States—guns were used to kill more than 300,000 people here between 2005 and 2015. But the vast majority died not by AR-15, but by handgun. For people who live in cities where gun violence is not some incomprehensible abstraction in the news but a heart-shattering reality in their community, trying to ban assault weapons increasingly seems like a fool's errand—or at least a waste of political capital. Roughly half of the victims of gun violence in the United States are black men, and the stories of their deaths are often enmeshed with realities shaped by poverty, unemployment, poor education, mass incarceration, and other byproducts of institutional racism. Digging to the root of the problem of gun violence in the United States will involve addressing these and other entrenched social issues, rather than merely wishing away frightening weapons.
That weapons crafted explicitly for battle are incredibly dangerous is not lost on the Wyoming NFA Shooters, either. A letter the group sent to prospective participants in this year's event cites a 2008 incident in which an eight-year-old boy at a machine-gun shoot in Massachusetts accidentally killed himself with a mini Uzi. In response, organizers of the Wyoming event banned the rental of short-barreled automatic weapons (too squirrelly) and mandated all shooters attend a safety meeting. Many of the shooters on hand were children, and as a rule, they were doted over carefully by earnest adults instructing them on the finer points of barrel control, sighting in on a target, and overall responsibility.
As someone who grew up hunting in Wyoming, I wasn't shocked to see kids with guns. Sure, some could theoretically grow up to join militias or otherwise use their skills for trouble—Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza reportedly spent time at the shooting range with his mother. But I suspect the more common effect of early exposure to guns is akin to how parents in Italy let their children drink wine and thereby seem to dull the intrigue inherent in forbidden pursuits.
People in Wyoming tend to pride themselves on parsing guns from gun violence—the state has the highest rate of gun ownership in the nation yet one of the lowest crime rates (its suicide rate, however, is through the roof, and most people kill themselves with guns). Lots of people who own guns do so to participate in the state's robust hunting culture. Longtime state senator Bernadine Craft (who did not attend the machine-gun event) pointed out that there's hardly anyone in Wyoming—and certainly not her—who opposes gun ownership for people who are going to use them to kill a deer or an elk or an antelope.
"But these are not let's-go-out-and-get-our-meat-for-the-winter guns," she told me. "You don't use an assault rifle when you're deer hunting. I don't know what your message is if you're talking about cannons, machine guns, AK-47s—what we think of in terms of terrorism, in terms of snipers, in terms of conflict. We think of them in terms of killing people."
As the sun dropped toward dusk, more families arrived with playful, scurrying children, and teenagers strolled in groups or else sweetly held hands in pairs. The whole place tasted like dust and smelled like burnt powder, and conversations were tough, since everyone was wearing earmuffs. But there emerged, regardless, an atmosphere of a kind of Classic American Summertime—with lots of men wearing pistols on their hips.
The sky turned dark, and Bill Black—atop his shipping container—announced the Mad Minute was about to start. Shooters had been holding fire for several minutes and loading their guns with pyrotechnic bullets. On Black's mark, the firing line erupted, and the shooting range alighted with what seemed like a million tracer streaks moving uncannily fast over the land, glancing off the far hillside and careening high into the sky, where they floated delicately for a moment before disappearing like dying fireflies among the first stars of night.
Follow Nathan C. Martin on Twitter.
Follow Ryan Dorgan on Instagram.