The NRA of Automatic Weapons
A group of machine-gun enthusiasts goes mainstream.

Vendor at the Knob Creek Gun Range


Eliana Johnson

Jeff Folloder was en route to West Point, Ky., for the biannual Knob Creek machine-gun shoot and military gun show when I spoke to him about the booming machine-gun business. As with semiautomatic weapons, machine-gun sales have spiked in recent years, and an enthusiastic culture of collectors and devotees now flourishes around the most heavily regulated weapons in America.

The three-day event in West Point is the largest of its kind, attracting dealers, collectors, and gun enthusiasts from around the country. It includes a night shoot, where men take aim at barrels of fuel attached to pyrotechnic charges. “The charges are set off by the impact of the bullets, creating fiery mushroom clouds and fireballs from hell!” according to the website of the Knob Creek Gun Range, and video of previous shoots shows the fireballs lighting up the dark sky.

Folloder is the executive director of the National Firearms Act Trade & Collectors Association (NFATCA), a membership organization that is akin to the National Rifle Association, but which advocates specifically for the interests of those who own weapons and accessories regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA) — machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and silencers, among others. The federal government imposes legal and bureaucratic hurdles to owning an NFA weapon, and the NFATCA helps its members negotiate them. 

The demand for these weapons has never been higher. At a show like the one in Knob Creek, Folloder says, “You blink once and you miss somebody who looks totally nondescript who’s willing to plunk down $80,000 to buy a gun, who says they’ve been trying to track it down for years.”

Machine guns are scarce in the United States. With only 182,000 in circulation — and a law preventing civilians from buying any machine gun that wasn’t in circulation in 1986 — they have caught the attention of gun enthusiasts and collectors alike. “It’s sort of like land, they’re not making it anymore,” Folloder explains.

He traces the growing interest in automatic weapons and their associated parts not to the political reaction to the recent massacre in Newtown, Conn., but to President Obama’s election. It was in 2009 that “we saw the numbers starting to escalate from our end of it,” he recounts.

In fact, the number of NFA weapons processed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has increased steadily over the past decade, rising from 156,000 in 2005 to over 1.1 million in 2011, the most recent year on record.

Looking beyond the weapons regulated by the NFA and considering all firearms, a larger pattern is clear. The number of firearms manufactured in the United States peaked at around 5.5 million in 2009, according to the ATF — an increase of over a million from the previous year. Since then, the number has remained fairly constant.

The country had not witnessed such a dramatic increase since 1993, the year after Bill Clinton was elected president, and the year before Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein’s assault-weapons ban was signed into law. The number of guns manufactured rose above 5 million in 1993, from around 4.1 million the year before; in 1994, it rose to 5.1 million before declining again.