Are machine guns a good example of good gun control?

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Below is the text from story I wrote for The Oregonian six years ago. The story is about machine guns.

Today it has been one week since the Newtown massacre, and it got me thinking about the way that I have covered gun control as a reporter in the past. 

The story no longer exists in The Oregonian’s digital archives, so I retrieved the full version from another source where I read many comments about how gun enthusiasts felt about the article. 

I wanted to write an unbiased look at gun culture, and the fact that machine guns are legal in Oregon provided an opportunity to look into a highly regulated segment of gun owners to better understand what’s at stake nationally. 

Gun control in America is a very complex matter. Much more so than we think. And yet every time there is a mass shooting, we scream about gun control as if it is a simple matter of a yes or no vote.

Americans feel strongly about their guns. Most of the people in my story are hobbyists who own very expensive machine guns as investments or for pleasure. Not once did anyone mention owning a machine gun for self protection. 

That role is often reserved for a handgun or a shotgun, I was told.

But some gun owners feel pinched by pressures on existing laws and by public sentiment. And herein lies the need for clarity through education. 

As we move forward to discuss gun control, there are great examples of effective gun control already at work within our lawmaking apparati. The machine gun law may not be perfect, but it allows people to won guns under strict regulations that have kept machine guns out of the limelight as weapons of choice in crime. 

Many gun enthusiasts enjoy their ability to own and shoot machine guns recreationally, and yet many don’t even know that these laws exist and that tighter regulations might make things more costly, but they can also keep guns with mass-killing capacity from being used in crimes. 

I re post this article here in hopes that it inspires new dialogue about what good gun control means to our safety as well as our 2nd Amendment rights. 

Machine guns come out of the closet
Firearms – Fully automatic weapons are legal in Oregon as long as they are properly registered and used safely

Sunday, January 29, 2006

After a week of delicately etching out cavities with a laser, dentist Rob Dugger of Wilsonville heads to the target range with his modified M-16.

“If it wasn’t this, it would be hot motorcycles or hot cars,” Dugger said, standing in the cool mist of a Sunday morning at the Albany Pistol and Rifle Club. “I do it to relax.”

Dugger, 49, a married father of four children ages 8 to 18, joined the substantial ranks of Oregon machine gun owners three years ago when he discovered that fully automatic weapons were legal in Oregon, as long as they are properly registered.

The federal government prohibits private citizens from owning automatic weapons made or imported after 1986. But Oregon — unlike California, Washington and seven other states — has not extended those restrictions to all machine guns. Oregon, in fact, has some of the more liberal weapons laws in the country. In Oregon, you can legally fire a machine gun, shoot a flamethrower, even launch a few grenades as long as you do it safely and with registered equipment.

Gun shops that sell or rent machine guns are scattered statewide, and facilities in Albany, Eugene and Clackamas County host supervised target practice.

The Baron’s Den in Eugene draws customers from all over Oregon, plus a few from states where machine guns are illegal. They pay $30 to run two 25-round clips through a Thompson machine gun, a process that lasts about six seconds per clip if you hold the trigger down. In Clackamas County, the sheriff’s office welcomes machine gun owners at its indoor firing range near Clackamas Town Center and provides supervised public rental of an M-4, a lightweight version of the M-16 favored by the military.

An expensive hobby

Jim Ebert, a former Oregon City commissioner who has taught machine gun safety and marksmanship for 20 years, bought his first M-16 for $500. It’s now worth about $11,000. Thompson submachine guns — the Tommy guns associated with Al Capone and 1920s gangsters — can fetch $10,000 to $40,000.

Today’s Tommy gun owner is someone like Gordon Herigstad, a retired engineer from Molalla who spent his working days as a merchant mariner. Herigstad is an expert on the Thompson submachine gun, which he favors for reliability and nostalgia. Herigstad occasionally uses the weapon in competitions, usually finishing near the top, but more often it’s locked in a case, rising in value like a fine antique.

Prices have soared because the ban on weapons made after 1986 limited supply and because of what some owners call the outlaw mystique of a misunderstood firearm.

“Only the upper income brackets have the discretionary income to buy machine guns,” said Ebert, who also is the full-auto instructor for the Albany Pistol and Rifle Club.

Patrick Murphy, an Intel engineer who lives in Vernonia, is one of the new breed of owners.

“Sometimes I take these Intel guys out to shoot. You should see them standing there in suits with a big smile on their face as they brrrrrr, brrrrrr, brrrrr,” Murphy said, pretending to strafe the landscape.

The registration process

When it’s time to buy, people often come to Erik Chaffee of Damascus.

“It’s not an easy process,” Chaffee said of transferring and registering a pre-1986 machine gun. You have to have money, sometimes a lot of money, and you have to have a clean record. Once local law enforcement has signed off on a transfer, paperwork enters the federal approval process, which can take weeks or months.

Chaffee figures he’s probably handled more than 200 machine gun transfers since he became a licensed dealer and started Chaffee Investment Arms in 1998. He’s been known to let clients shoot $100 of ammunition before settling on a purchase.

Some people want big machine guns that fire rifle-caliber bullets and sound like a supersonic jackhammer, Chaffee said. Others want smaller, more refined weapons, such as the 9mm HK-MP5 or the Israeli-made Uzi.

“You can’t pick out a machine gun for a guy,” Chaffee said. “That would be like picking a wife for somebody.”

A changing market

Machine guns have always been legal in Oregon, but owners kept quiet about them.

Gun dealer Chaffee said that until about 10 years ago, you didn’t talk about machine guns in public, and you never told anyone who sold one to you.

“Back then, every time someone got shot, or a bank was robbed, every type of gun was bad,” Chaffee said. “It didn’t have anything to do with the person. It was just bad guns.”

Chaffee credits the Internet with changing machine gun subculture by creating a meeting place for buyers and sellers, and a medium for the exchange of ideas. Gun owners in the Portland area often turn to for postings of firing ranges or clubs open to machine guns to find out about scheduled shoots or to make contact with other owners.

R. Glenn Sabin of Portland, who came to appreciate machine guns during his military career, said the culture has “always been under the radar” because of what he sees as misinformation. “I think it’s a lack of education about guns,” Sabin said, referring to efforts to further restrict gun ownership. “Besides, a legally registered machine gun has never been used in a crime.”

That point is hard to prove, but according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, Sabin may be correct. Arrests involving unregistered automatic weapons, however, do occur, and they can be disturbing.

In 2001, federal agents and Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies discovered an arsenal of explosives, machine guns and white supremacist literature in a rural Clackamas County home near Sandy. At the time, Sandi King, who has a 31-year history with the sheriff’s office, said, “This is the first time I’ve seen something of this magnitude, ever… . This is scary.”

Dale Penn, a longtime district attorney who now heads the state lottery, said that after Congress passed the 1986 law restricting machine guns, he spoke with law enforcement officials about proposing a complete ban on machine guns in Oregon, but it never became a priority. Machine guns are too expensive, too hard to conceal and too heavily regulated to be favored in street crime.

Shooting extravaganzas

The rising interest in machine guns also creates a market for organized shoots and occasionally spectacular exhibitions.

The nation’s largest machine gun event is a three-day, full-auto extravaganza each spring and fall at Knob Creek Gun Range in Kentucky. Up to 10,000 visitors watch as machine gunners fire on radio-controlled cars and household appliances. To get a spot on the firing line requires up to a 10-year wait.

In Oregon, one of the most popular machine gun events is the semiannual shoot at the Albany Rifle and Pistol Club, a target-shooting competition that showcases machine guns for sale and offers rentals supervised by the range master. Albany’s next shoot will be May 20-21, an event expected to draw about 400 spectators and participants.

This year, the Albany shoot could be eclipsed by a new event in Eastern Oregon.

On June 17-18, the Eagle Cap Shooters Association of Enterprise plans to host what organizers are billing as “the biggest and best machine gun shoot in the Pacific Northwest.”

“We have a big range, the ability to shoot out to 1,000 yards, explosive targets, a night shoot, and the nearest neighbor is over a mile away, so noise won’t be an issue,” said Eric Kosowski, a spokesman for the Shooters Association.

“We’re pulling in people from Boise, northern Idaho and all over Oregon.”

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