Let Freedom -- and Gunshots -- Ring
In the days following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the majority of the sporting world, a place defined by its motion, stood still.
Major League Baseball suspended play for nearly a full week -- 91 games in all. "Who cares about baseball right now?" Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said, putting words to the feelings of even the most diehard of fans. "This is not a time when you worry about playing games."
The National Football League canceled its full slate of games on Sunday, as well as the scheduled Monday-night match-up between Minnesota and Baltimore. "We felt it was right to take a week to reflect and to help our friends, families and people in the community who need our support," Commissioner Paul Tagliabue explained unnecessarily. Athletic directors at major universities agreed. "We didn't think it was appropriate to play a football game on a national day of mourning," said Jeff Hathaway of Colorado State University, which was scheduled to play Nevada-Las Vegas Friday night.
Denver-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners took a different tack. "Our view was that terrorists had assaulted our liberties," said Dudley Brown, the lobbying organization's executive director. "That's just what they did; they took advantage of our liberties to assault ours. And we weren't about ready to restrict our own liberties."
So members pressed forward with their 2001 Fun Shoot. On the crest of a rise overlooking a muddy Morgan County field owned by the brother of state senator Marilyn Musgrave, several dozen enthusiasts set up their guns as planned. Not just any guns, though; certainly none of those that can be discharged at ranges in or near a city limit. This past weekend, the plains of Colorado were reserved for gun owners on the distant edge of the social definition of the Second Amendment -- a place RMGO knows well and accepts. "We're not afraid to be called radicals on the gun issue," says Brown. "Because that's what we are."
The annual Fun Shoot is dedicated to .50-caliber enthusiasts -- owners of, or merely those captivated by, the most powerful non-custom rifle made today. You won't see it in Gart Bros. or Wal-Mart, even though the restrictions on purchasing one remain the same as a shotgun or a .22 plinking rifle -- despite several failed legislative attempts to classify the gun alongside so-called "destructive devices" such as grenade-launchers.
Nearly six feet long, the guns have been known to make gun-control advocates apoplectic. The reasons have little to do with the weapon's actual track record. Unwieldy, heavy and expensive, .50-caliber guns have rarely been used in the commission of deadly crimes. (Albert Petrosky, who killed a Jefferson County sheriff's deputy in a 1995 shootout, carried one but didn't use it.) Yet their potential for mayhem is alarming, and their popularity is soaring.
The guns, which cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 and up, are more powerful than most people can even imagine, with an effective range of about four miles. The .50-caliber cartridge, at about six inches long, is five times the size of the .30-06, a round that in other company might be considered plenty powerful. During the Fun Shoot, tracer ammo -- bullets coated with a fast-burning powder that illuminates the shot's trajectory -- showed .50-caliber bullets piercing entire cars and ventilating steel tanks.
Most people who like big guns like all big guns, and the .50-caliber was hardly the Fun Shoot's only draw. Throughout the event, the air rattled and the ground shook to the staccato music of a multitude of machine guns and assault rifles -- from small, handheld Uzis to anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.
Across the country this past weekend, people grieved and feared. For Fun Shoot participants, the assembled firepower was a potent sign of individual freedom and a source of collective comfort. "This is probably the safest place in Colorado right now," Brown observed.
Few things simultaneously stir the patriotic soul and stoke the fires of anti-government outrage better than the Second Amendment. Add in feelings about the recent terrorist actions, and an especially strange mixture of resentment and pride hovered over the third annual Fun Shoot. The trucks and campers filling the parking areas boasted more than their fair share of bumper stickers questioning the motives of the U.S. government. But a dozen flags flown at half-mast across the encampment snapped in the strong midday breezes.
"With-us-or-against-us" groups like Rocky Mountain Gun Owners revel in this kind of muddy ideological terrain. "Last week I'm checking my telephone messages, and I got four from Democrats asking me where they could buy assault weapons," Brown reports gleefully. "Osama bin Laden hasn't kicked in any doors yet. But let's face it: When the riots happen, your ideology goes out the window."
If the riots do happen, RMGO will be standing by to say, 'We told you so.' Self-billed as "Colorado's Largest No-Compromise Gun Rights Organization," the group must have broken some kind of speed record last week. On September 14, a mere three days after terrorists rammed three planes into American monuments and crashed a fourth, RMGO posted an editorial on its Web site bemoaning how "Americans have been indoctrinated to be good victims."
"The reason that a few hijackers armed only with knives and box cutters were able to murder tens of thousands of innocent people," it continued, "is less a problem of physically disarmed passengers, and more a problem of psychologically disarmed passengers."
Such rhetoric hardly marks a change in approach for the group. Like many Americans who are in favor of gun control, RMGO also views the National Rifle Association with suspicion -- but for completely opposite reasons. "The NRA promotes the same policies as Neville Chamberlain: appeasement," Brown says. "You know -- if we just give them Austria, they'll be happy. Unlike the NRA, we didn't take a public-opinion poll to decide what we believe." (Mary Ann Bradfield, who lobbies Colorado politicians for the NRA, declines to comment on Brown or the RMGO. "Now is not the time for that sort of thing," she says.)
Brown typically refers to the NRA's local affiliate, the Colorado State Shooting Association, as a "lapdog to Governor 'Gun Control' Bill Owens" -- a politician the RMGO holds in special disregard. The governor earned the group's enmity with his support of Amendment 22, which requires purchaser background checks at gun shows, as well as his highly visible role in Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic, or SAFE Colorado, a gun-control group formed in response to the killings at Columbine High School.
Though only 35 years old, Brown has spent most of his adult life scrabbling in the trenches against the forces of gun control, wherever they may lie. "I've always been a gunny my whole life, and I got tired of seeing politicians who knew nothing about it," Brown says. A native of South Dakota, Brown moved to Colorado in 1984 to attend CSU. "When I walked into my dorm room, I had five or six rifles," he recalls. "Whenever my roommates scooted off to Cozumel, me and my buddies would go to Kiowa County and shoot like hell."
He worked early on for the college Republicans, and soon after graduation landed a job as a local staffer for U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong. Later he went to work for the state legislature, and then the Colorado State Shooting Association as a lobbyist. But in 1996, Brown quit the gun-rights group in disgust "when I refused to kiss politician ass instead of kick it."
Unlike the NRA, which in response to growing public pressure has slowly agreed to a handful of small restrictions in order to maintain its larger agenda, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners has taken the opposite strategy under Brown. It has vigorously opposed any and all measures to regulate firearms, from background checks and registration of certain weapons to efforts to mandate the safe storage of guns. "We don't think that's a solution to crime," Brown explains. "It's an attempt to appease the leftist media. So we don't do it."
The group, which claims more than 7,000 members statewide, also actively seeks out and promotes political candidates who promise not to compromise on the Second Amendment. Brown says he has already enlisted former state senator Jim Congrove to run for Jefferson County sheriff against John Stone. Brown says that Congrove, unlike Stone, will issue permits to carry concealed weapons to any applicant who wants one and is not disqualified by criminal background. ("I haven't decided anything on that yet," Congrove clarifies, although he acknowledges that he was a consistent supporter of Second Amendment rights while serving as a state representative and senator.)
Several weeks ago, RMGO filed a Freedom of Information Request with El Paso County, seeking the names of each of the 4,400-odd residents who had been issued a permit to carry a concealed handgun there. The county balked at first, but two weeks ago, at the prodding of RMGO's attorney, it relented and released the list. Brown says he meant no harm: His goal was not to publicly shame or humiliate the permit holders, but to simply add them to RMGO's mailing list.
Within the next month or so, the organization also plans to file a lawsuit in Colorado district court, Brown adds. It will claim that the Brady Bill's background checks, in which a computer takes anywhere from several minutes to a couple of hours to scan a buyer's criminal background, are unconstitutional.
"The government doesn't need to know who owns what guns," Brown says. "It doesn't need to approve who can buy a gun. We don't like lines like that. Adolf Hitler drew some clean lines: Jews couldn't carry guns and the SS and Gestapo could. I suppose there was less crime in Nazi Germany.
"We say, why shouldn't you be able to have this freedom? Why shouldn't you be allowed to own a .50-caliber or a machine gun?"
"We're gonna shoot the cannon in a minute," the range officer shouted. He paused, then added, "If anyone wants to watch." There was a general chuckle across the range: Who wouldn't want to watch the cannon?
The artillery in question was the 1937 37-millimeter Bofors owned by Lon, a resident of Green Mountain and a fixture at big-gun shoots. (Like everyone else at the Fun Shoot, Lon asked that only his first name be used.) Mounted on two wheels and so big it comes with its own seating pad, the gun uses rounds that are about a foot long and nearly two inches in diameter.
Finding enough space to shoot guns with a range that can be measured in townships is always a challenge. Last year's Fun Shoot was held in unincorporated Adams County -- an isolated area, but close enough to DIA flight patterns to warrant concern. Particularly now. "After what happened last Tuesday, I don't think the FAA was going to be happy with us shooting 20-millimeter guns in flight paths," Brown points out. Originally the group thought it had found a site outside of Brush, a range that Brown had used before. "One of the things I like to do is get together with a bunch of guys from my church and go to this place north of Brush," he says. "We tie an old car to a post, put a brick on the gas pedal and let it drive itself in circles while me and some friends shoot at it with machine guns. It takes about five minutes to stop it with eight guys shooting. Cars are tough. Usually it's the radiator hits that stop it. Then we got to let it burn."
But that location, too, proved imperfect for a sustained Fun Shoot. "An old lady lives next door, and we wouldn't have been able to let her stay there," Brown says. "It just wouldn't have been nice. We would have had to send her to Disneyland to see her grandkids." Finally, after some calls, Brown landed the Musgrave plot.
Situated a dozen miles east of the Weld/Morgan county line, the firing range was about as safe as you could get and still be inside what is commonly known as civilization. Rules for shooters were strict, and strictly enforced: mandatory eye and ear protection, no alcohol, open chamber markers (such as a pencil sticking out of the chamber) required, ownership paperwork in order. There was even a dress code -- or, more accurately, an anti-dress code. "The media could try to paint us in the 'militia' corner, so we ask, 'No camos, please,'" the registration form noted. (Everyone complied, although one father-son team passed the weekend in fully authentic World War II garb. Message T-shirts were also common: "Christian, American, Heterosexual, Pro-Gun Conservative. Any questions?" read one.)
The field looked less like productive crop acreage than a large yard decorated Appalachian style. Several old automobiles had been placed at different distances throughout the plowed property; numerous propane tanks were also scattered about the field. Most of the targets ranged from a quarter to two-thirds of a mile from the firing line. On a hill beyond the field, just under a mile distant, a lone propane tank taunted shooters. (Early Saturday afternoon, a temporary ceasefire was ordered so that volunteers could put out a small grass fire ignited when that target was hit.)
The report of Lon's 37-millimeter cannon was like pressing your ear to a clap of thunder. A collective whistle of appreciation rippled through the crowd as a round slammed into a junked car in the middle of the field. "Whooo-eeee!" yelled one guy. "You gotta love that!"
Lon, who began collecting guns years ago, definitely does. "You know how it is," he says. "You start small and you work your way up." He bought the 37-millimeter from a man in Pahrump, Nevada, who had kept it in a shed for years until the thing rusted into uselessness. Although ammunition is difficult to find, Lon has managed to scrape together about 200 shells, which he reloads by hand.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates guns in this country, doesn't pay a lot of attention to older weapons. Under a section of the law called "Curios and Relics," many large guns over fifty years old can be bought and sold without much oversight of the transactions. This break from government intervention and meddling is a welcome relief for big-gun enthusiasts such as Lon, whose collection has grown over the years.
Lon had also set up a 1940s-era Solothurn, from Switzerland, obtained from a police officer near Detroit. Farther down the line was a 1940 Boys. Originally a .55-caliber anti-tank gun, Lon converted it to .50-caliber because the ammunition is easier to find. Next to that was a 1918 Maxim, an 8-millimeter automatic Lon acquired from a guy who lived outside of Greeley. When Lon found it, the gun was rusted up -- "deactivated," in BATF lingo. But with some elbow grease and a $200 federal tax payment, it became fully functional.
Lon's guns were a highlight of the weekend, and people periodically stopped shooting their own firearms in order to watch him direct tracer rounds into a car about 400 yards away. Each shot was unfailingly accurate, and smoke curled up around the car. Every hour or so, Lon also launched a bowling ball from his vintage mortar. It soared several thousand feet up and a good quarter-mile away before falling into the mud with a classic incoming whistle.
But Lon's guns were far from the only draw. Denver Bullets Inc., a Capitol Hill gun store, had reserved two conjoining spots along the firing line. Under a pair of white tents, three employees were kept busy renting out a large selection of Uzis and a series of fully automatic 9-millimeter rifles and AK-47s, all firing anywhere from 500 to 1,200 rounds per minute. There was also a relatively rare, fully automatic 12-gauge shotgun.
And that was just the smaller hardware brought by Denver Bullets. In front of the tents, facing the field, was a wall of larger artillery, mostly belt- or box-fed anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. The M-60, circa 1955, earned its reputation shooting out of helicopters in Vietnam. One impressive setup, dual German machine guns mounted on a single swivel, peppered the Colorado farmland with more than 2,000 shots per minute, or thirty per second, if anyone could count that fast.
Most of the guns are relatively easy for citizens to acquire, explains Greg from Denver Bullets. According to federal law, any machine gun manufactured before May 1986 is available to any person over the age of eighteen who can pass a background check and come up with the $200 tax. "If you can buy a gun, you can own a machine gun," he says.
Several of the guns on display were made after 1986 and could only be legally owned by law-enforcement officers or Class III gun dealers. So the Fun Shoot provided a rare opportunity for regular citizens: All of the guns were available for rent, at $25 for fifty rounds.
Down the line from Denver Bullets, Jay, a tall, serious-looking man, boasted perhaps the most famous gun at the event. Known as the "ma-deuce," the belt-fed M2 machine gun was used in World War II to propel Browning's .50-caliber rounds through German tanks. But not in Morgan County, of course. "I don't hunt or target-shoot," Jay says between percussive bursts from the four-foot-long gun. "I just like to watch machine guns go off."
The M2 is widely considered the granddaddy of the whole .50-caliber movement. Single-shot, or semi-automatic guns that fired a round, popped up occasionally after World War II. But it wasn't until a decade ago, when the gun achieved near-mythic status in the Gulf War as the sniper's consummate tool, that its popularity soared. Today the .50-caliber cartridge has attracted an estimated 20,000 peacetime fans, who are enthralled by the range, power and sheer pyrotechnics of the weapon.
Jay's collection of big guns was so large, he arrived at the range in a pickup-mounted camper pulling a trailer. Setup and breakdown of his half-dozen guns took the better part of a morning. On Sunday morning, more than an hour was spent gathering up the mounds of shells that surrounded his spot on the firing line. The time and cost of Jay's hobby -- at 600 to 900 rounds per minute and about $2 per round, firing the M2 can quickly strain a budget -- makes manning big guns a solitary pursuit. "I had this hobby before I had a wife," he says. "Now I don't have a wife, so there's no one to complain."
Randy's wife, Theresa, wasn't doing any complaining, even though a bum knee prevented her from shooting. Randy, a genial two-tour Vietnam vet, had brought his family along in a 1972 Pinzgauer, an Austrian military vehicle that's a cross between an SUV and an ATV. Once he'd parked the Pinzgauer, he mounted his .50-caliber rifle to the bed, so he could shoot out the back of the vehicle. "The .50 has more range than anything else," he says. "It's one of the most phenomenal guns you can get your hands on."
"But if you're going to get into it, you gotta be careful," he adds. "You don't see amateurs getting involved with it. The only people who have interest in it are people who've been around guns all their lives."
He's made sure that group includes his family. Theresa shot the gun at last year's Fun Shoot. And this past weekend, the couple's fifteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, shot it for the first time. "It was awesome," she says, reclining under a tent with her family. "Things were blowing up. Even when the cars already were on fire, you could tell when you hit it. Sparks would fly up."
"A few of my friends think it's pretty cool," she adds. "Others think I'm a psycho. I don't talk about it too much around them."
"This particular gun will never be misused," Theresa says. "I take great satisfaction in knowing these guys can come out here and do this because they want to."
Next door, Vic, a plasma physicist who once taught at the University of Colorado, meticulously picked off targets nearly a mile away. The appeal of one of the most successful military guns ever, he explained, is being able to use it peacefully. "Usually they're used in times of war," he says. "This is one of the few times you can use them and only damage paper and metal. It's a very innocuous sport."
Fathers nudged their sons behind the guns, eagerly paying -- $10 for three shots, $15 for five -- for the experience, snapping pictures to preserve the moment. After one thin boy fired into the field, the gun's owner tried to pump him up. "A little better'n a .22, isn't it?" he laughed, slapping the boy's back.
The boy smiled slightly and rubbed his shoulder. "What's wrong?" the owner asked loudly. "Something bite you?"
The entire Fun Shoot seemed more pyrotechnic than hostile or military, and I was easily drawn into the spirit of the thing. I stood in line and paid my money, first to shoot the tripod-mounted .308 M60 (my fifty rounds disappeared into the muck and were gone in a flash, although my arms shook for minutes afterward), and then a .50-caliber owned by Bob from Denver Bullets.
The recoil of the big gun was hardly more than that of a 12-gauge shotgun. Yet the report was deep and satisfying, as much tactile as it was aural. Even when standing yards away, you could feel the big bullet's explosions from inside the gun's thick metal barrel, beginning in your chest and vibrating down your legs. Effortlessly, I nailed a 24-inch bulldozer wheel a good 1,500 feet away. The bullet went clean through the inch-thick metal. It felt good.
We all felt good. That Saturday night, the Morgan County field lit up with exploding propane tanks and burning cars and tracer rounds that flew through the dark Colorado night like a thousand fireflies, and everyone stood to cheer and yell. In a country struck low by pocket knives, box cutters and passenger planes, what was the harm? "This is why we fight wars, isn't it?" Brown asked.
Bob agreed. "You got to get closure somehow," he said.
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