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The Independent Culture
THE NOISE is almost unbearable. Stretched out in a ragged line across the shooting range, dozens of men are firing away with every imaginable kind of automatic weapon: antiaircraft guns, American assault rifles, Chinese-made AK-47s, even a small artillery piece. Their targets: two trash bins and a junked car. It's not clear that anyone is actually hitting anything, but no one seems to care. It's the joy of firing their weapons that brings these people to the Knob Creek Machine-Gun Shoot.

Twice a year, about 5,000 people, some from as far away as Britain, Australia and Japan, flock to this firing range in the hills of western Kentucky. About 200 of them will actually fire their guns during a shoot (the next of which is set for 15 October). The rest just come to watch, or to browse among the weaponry - from First World War guns to modern anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers - on sale in the gun-dealers' tent.

At times, when the noise dies down (the guns often jam), a break is announced. This allows Charles Hobson, known as "The Flame-Thrower Man", to walk out on to the shooting range with some of his customers. For $80, Hobson will strap one of his flame-throwers on to a customer's back, explain how the device works, and allow him - it is, invariably, a him - to blast away at the junked car. As the car is engulfed in flame, tongues of fire flicker through thousands of holes in the demolished vehicle.

Anyone can own automatic weapons in the USA. The regulations require only a background check and a licence, and despite growing opposition, the guns are still legal in most states (although Knob Creek is one of the very few shooting ranges on which you are allowed to fire them). According to the federal government, about 250,000 automatic weapons are registered in the USA; no one knows how many unregistered guns there are in the country. But anti-gun sentiment does not seem to have extended to this part of rural Kentucky, where the nearest heavily populated area is a military base, Fort Knox. In fact, the local hoteliers, who can count on a good weekend's business twice a year from the shoots, are positively enthusiastic. And although anti-gun campaigners point to the dangers of such weapons falling into the hands of drug dealers and other gangsters, there does not seem to be any serious prospect of the Machine-Gun Shoot's being discontinued. The people gathered here are respectable, law-abiding: the sort of people who see gun-ownership not just as a right but as a patriotic duty.

Nobody knows for sure how many rounds will be fired over next weekend's shoot, but Kenny Sumner, one of the organisers, says: "I can guarantee it's over a million rounds." One of the Knob Creek weapons, once used on helicopter gunships in Vietnam, fires 4,000 rounds per minute. For $75, spectators can fire 100 rounds with it - an experience which, despite lasting less than two seconds, is for many the main attraction of the event.

It was Sumner's father, Winfred, a gun- dealer, who founded the event about 20 years ago. For a while in the early Eighties, interest died off and the shoot was cancelled, but since its revival in 1984 it has attracted large crowds. At the end of each day's firing, when the car and trash bins have been reduced to blackened rubble, the crowd watches as a tractor goes out and hauls them off the range. Then the tractor turns around and drags out another car, maybe even an old washing machine, to serve as targets for the next day. !