Gideon Lewis-Kraus


The Mustang Range Machine-Gun Shoot

In the Nevada desert, Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends time shooting some very big guns.

It's the day before Yom Kippur, so it's clear to me that the most appropriate thing to do is fire the Uzi first. The machine-gun range is an hour into the desert east of Reno; the sun bores hot but the light is flat and the sky a feeble blue. This is the Mustang Range, a little western Nevada fiefdom between Silver Springs and Fernley. They host these machine-gun shoots twice a year: on Father's Day-the busy one, I hear-and now, in late September. A range officer stands behind me, his hand flat on my shoulder blade. He wears a short-sleeved collared shirt with Mustang Range's slick corporate logo silk-screened on the back, and he talks in a steady clipped voice."The Uzi has an open-bolt action and the magazine is loaded with 9 mm rounds. Have you ever shot an Uzi before? No? But you've shot a gun before? No? Okay. You shouldn't expect much of a kick. It'll feel like a hard tap on the inside of your shoulder." He gestures, without touching, to where the butt of the gun is nestled. It's hard to concentrate on the range officer's routine. I am wholly consumed by the insane terrified recoil of my soft heart.The range officer blithely continues his instructions. "The safety," he explains, and this seems salient enough to struggle to pay attention to, "is on the back of the trigger." As soon as I grip the Uzi it will be live. I grip the machine gun, my outstretched left hand cradling the surprisingly light barrel. The safety is depressed by the base of my thumb, and the first joint of my index finger rests on the trigger. I stare twenty-five yards down-range at a pixilated poster, propped up on a plywood sheet, of a Doberman pinscher.To my right is my friend Crane, who's accompanied me on this reconnaissance mission. He plugs away, eyes narrowed, at a poster of Osama, who aims back at Crane with a gun barrel wide enough to shoot whole grapefruits. Between the Doberman and Osama is a plump stuffed black-and-teal toucan, perforated, hanging by its neck from a thick white cord. Other suspended stuffed animals include Curious George strung up by his wrists, Raggedy Ann a-dangle, and upside-down Barney. Later, the range master grins behind cracked prescription goggles and says, "The adults love to hit Barney. He's the holy grail of the submachine-gun range." This buffet of punishable targetry belies the calling of these machine guns, however. There seems to be little question of really aiming at anything specific.I pull myself together. I re-depress the safety. I lean into the gun, feet planted in the dust, and wince preemptively as I pull the trigger. There's a hollow click followed by no brash scatter of deadly 9 mm fire.This machine, everyone notices, has refused to perform in my spindly liberal hands. If the gun is going to stand on principle this strikes me as a reasonable one."It jammed," says the range officer as he gently strips the gun from my hands. I ask if I did something wrong. "Nope," he says, "it's the gun." He clears the chamber and removes the magazine and fiddles with the cartridges and puts it back in my hands. Crane has successfully unloaded his magazine and looks like a person made new. "Those Israelis," his range officer says with solemn admiration, "they sure make a good gun."The gun is ready again and my heart resumes its protest. Triggerpull now and I am holding six hundred explosions per minute in this short metal artery and every last ineffectual muscle I have lunges and my blood hurries furiously, a fierce amphetaminic torrent. Bullets fly nowhere near the Doberman or the toucan. Neither do they graze Osama.In less than six seconds it is over. I click and click and click again but the magazine is exhausted. The range officer turns my way. He is more than welcome, it occurs to me, to go right ahead and try to pry this gun out of my cold, dead hands.Bracketing the question of whether hunting is barbaric there are clear uses for, say, rifles or shotguns. Bracketing the question of whether handguns are necessary for proper self-defense-a more troublesome bracketing, one should probably admit-there are at least quasi-functionalist arguments for handguns.Aside from war, however, machine guns do not seem to lend themselves to utilitarian purposes. A detached investigation of this prima facie absurdity is at least part of the reason I have been dispatched here, to shoot guns in the desert. I am now no longer detached; this no longer feels so absurd. The next range officer on the line hands me a full-auto Glock 18 and I fire before his fingers are off the gun. These firearms enthusiasts find it amusing that this model is de rigueur for the fashionable rapper; it is the most obtuse and imprecise weapon on the submachine-gun range. (Although for me, given that I could barely hit the desert with the Uzi, this seems an invidious distinction.) I crouch forward and am heavy on the trigger. There is a Winnie the Pooh doll crucified on sawhorse stocks; he is untidily aerated. Crane, a gentle man with a dog called Pigglepug, generously defends himself against a poster of an anonymous jihadi with a Palestinian kaffiyeh. Nearby a 12-year-old wields an M1 Thompson at a Mr. Happy doll. "This is better than Disneyland," he says."Obviously," Crane says.This obviously-better-than-Disneyland is the end of a long gravel road surrounded by calloused khaki hills, stubbly with low chaparral. Berms rise like jetties, breaking up the desert into protected fields. There's a flamethrower range, too, but I never get to take a gander. The line is always too thick with little kids. They tote and snuggle the stuffed animals they brought to immolate. We're not too far from Gerlach, home of Burning Man; a handful of these guys and a tiny fraction of their arsenal, one can't help but think, could put an abrupt and definitive end to the mass delusions there practiced. Given the range of some of these guns, it seems as though we could do it from here.Mustang Range opened a few years ago as a local host for machine-gun partisans who didn't have anyplace else to shoot machine guns. It's not easy, it turns out, to own or fire machine guns. The federal government made them illegal in 1986, but there was an amnesty for those who already owned one: you could keep it as long as you registered it and submitted to a background check. You can still buy them from registered owners, but the inquiry takes three to six months. Some states have passed laws that make them illegal for anyone without a special dispensation from the ATF, which are generally unobtainable for nonmilitary personnel. Many of the shooters at Mustang Range describe themselves, with a mix of bitterness and pride, as "escapees" from California or other states that have passed strict laws regulating or banning these guns. The main thing that the 1986 ban did, however, was make these pieces extremely valuable: once the supply was sealed, prices launched into the thousands of dollars. The most expensive weapons here are military samples owned by defense contractors; some of them cost almost two hundred grand apiece.The scarcity of both these guns and places to legally discharge them have made havens like Mustang Range profitable, though the cash changes hands under a banner of disgruntled populism. The range seems to make most of its revenue from private affairs: bachelor parties, bar mitzvahs. I overhear one enthusiast ask the range owner, Neil, how to arrange a private rental. "Shoot me an email," Neil replies.At this event, the Mustang Range charges a $20 registration fee, but the real money is in ammunition sales: you buy a ticket at the entrance area for, say, $80, which you then bring to the range officer at the AK-47 station and he takes your ticket and lets you have at it. The ammo costs three to five dollars a round. Some of these guns fire up to 3,000 rounds a minute, which means that five or 10 seconds can cost a lot; I watched a man shoot $400 worth of vouchers in eight seconds. The lines are not short. Most of the few hundred attendees will drop at least a grand today. Their trigger fingers will get maybe 60 seconds of exercise, if they're lucky. (It is, by the way, worth it.)The Uzi and the Glock 18 are on the submachine-gun range, which is a quarter of a mile along a dirt path from the main machine-gun range. The main range is a huge parcel, 300 yards long, just over a high berm from the parking lot. The firing line, at least a football field in length, is ankle deep in brass casings, which the guns flip and toss in flashy arching cascades. Snubby and fat as plantains, they plink lightly onto heaps. The air, toasted to dry sweetness with cordite, flinches and swoons with percussion: insect-like ratatats and ominous thwocks and fizzy poppops in shattered and pleasant rhythms. The ground, a pulverized biscuit-flour dust, suffers an uneven rumble. Out on the range are broken-down school buses and Buicks and washing machines, more charred puncture than metal. Shots rake the dust like skipping stones.\n\n\n
The firing line, at least a football field in length, is ankle deep in brass casings, which the guns flip and toss in flashy arching cascades.
The firing line showcases most marquee machine guns: .30 caliber Browning 1919s (the World War II weapon of choice), M60s (the 1919's Vietnam-era successor), .50 caliber M2s (the "Ma Deuce"; this has a four-mile maximum range), .50 caliber full-auto Barrett sniper rifles (pinpoint-accurate to over a mile), eight-foot-long Lahti guns (a 20 mm Finnish antitank goliath often called an "elephant gun"; one shot costs $40 and the recoil knocks off earmuffs). Men putter around tinkering with these complicated machines. To be a machine-gun nut is to be first and foremost a technician. These firearms, complicated as cars, do not run themselves.It's a sexy kind of technician, though. An exaggeratedly buxom blonde woman from Orange County kneels in front of the Ma Deuce. A 300-pound man in a sleeveless shirt, American flag bandanna, and Hulk Hogan moustache/jaw combo stands above her and opens the gun's chamber. He takes a rusty can and spills a stream of heavy oil into the chamber as the woman takes up the gun's pistol grips. He closes the chamber and threads a belt of linked rounds. She pulls the trigger. She shimmies along with her barrage, the red tracer bullets ricocheting off a smoldering pickup truck and over the rear berm to the rise behind the range, where these bullets have been setting small brushfires all afternoon.

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