The blast wave thumping into my body felt familiar. My mind flashed to a memory — face full of grit, ears ringing, eyes fixed on a convulsing, dying 13-year-old boy whose legs had been blown off by a bomb hidden on a dirt path in Southern Afghanistan.
I began to take a knee, but paused. I was not in a war zone. I am no longer a soldier. I was in America, at a gun range in Kentucky. This was a show, an experience manufactured for my entertainment. The muted grunts from a child’s blood-filled mouth were replaced by cheers and rebel yells.
The Knob Creek Gun Range is 30 minutes outside of Louisville near the town of West Point, on a former military testing range. Twice a year, the range hosts “the Machine Gun Shoot,” arguably the most famous — and impressive — display of civilian-owned firepower in America.
For three days in late October, the firing line was packed. Shooters unloaded everything from the type of gas-operated machine guns my grandfather used in World War II to the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon I was first given as an 18-year-old Infantryman. They shot weapons I’ve fired, and weapons that have been fired at me. They aimed downrange at cars, washing machines, kitchen appliances, barrels filled with explosives, and even a boat. Thousands of spectators watched from a nearby observation stand, their smartphones extended skyward to capture the action.
Attending the shoot as a veteran was a complex experience. My first instinct was to try to convince myself that I was having fun. The shoot felt like an essentially American activity, after all — regular citizens legally and safely fire fully automatic weapons and blow inanimate objects to smithereens. Fully automatic weapons are almost exclusively owned by collectors — they cost tens of thousands of dollars — and are almost never used in crimes.
Some of the attendees were curious onlookers, or enthusiasts looking to vent some pent up frustration or stress by paying hundreds of dollars to blow up a propane tank or annihilate an old car. Between firing sets, shooters and spectators were allowed to walk out on the range to observe the targets torn apart and aflame. Children posed for photographs next to burning cars and skipped between pockmarked household appliances, digging through the dirt to find bullets that were theirs to keep.
But the novelty quickly wore off. It felt too much like a raw outpouring of the new masculine standard of American gun culture: possessing weapons systems and gear more complicated and high-tech than what I carried into combat. And there was hatred on display.
People sported shirts emblazoned with “Armed Infidel” or “Fuck Hillary.” In the range’s vendor area, sellers offered tables of guns, armor, and survivalist equipment. One sold Nazi uniforms, billed for “re-enactment purposes.” Another offered a t-shirt that read, “Lee Harvey, we need you now!” in bold block letters across the front. Several sheriff’s deputies stopped momentarily to observe the message, but continued on their way.
While walking the grounds I noticed a familiar sight, the Army’s Combat Action Badge on the hat of a man in his mid-20s, my age. He’d served two tours in Iraq, he told me. He was also an avid weapons collector. I asked about some of the anti-government rhetoric I’d heard, and seen — and what he thought about the recent arrest of several anti-government extremists in rural Kansas who had been caught plotting a terror attack on Somali immigrants.
“What do you think the guys hauling off all this gear and ammo at the show are doing?” he joked, implying that some people in attendance might be capable of similar plots.
As the sun set, I settled into the stands to watch the long weekend’s main event: the night fire: literally, shooting high-powered weapons after dark. Explosions lit up the sky. I snapped photos and enjoyed the view, but I couldn’t help but think of that shirt.
The attempted terrorists in Kansas were outed by a colleague, who alerted police to the same types of words and political energy I’d seen worn on t-shirts and patches all weekend. At Knob Creek, most of the crowd, I assumed, was harmless: people who like big guns and have the money to spend on them. But I’m worried that the violent words might escalate to action — that what’s billed as entertainment and play is practice for something real.
Alex Flynn is a photographer working out of Missouri and New York. He spent six years in the Army, serving as an infantryman and then as a combat correspondent.