In the summer of 2006, I was in Mogadishu, Somalia, a failed and forgotten state that had been suffering from almost a decade of civil war. It is still one of the most dangerous places in the world, and even my 10 guards armed with Kalashnikovs didn't prevent me from being detained by Islamic militias. During my five days in Mogadishu, I could rarely leave the security of the hotel. But, during one outing I convinced my guards to take me to the Irtokte Gun Market, the largest arms bazaar in Somalia. I spent 20 minutes at this open-air market, and was both amazed and alarmed at the sheer amount of firepower available for sale. There were thousands of AK-47s being sold as casually as carpets from wood framed stalls. I remember thinking what a unique and extraordinary experience I was having, and that I would probably never see this kind of thing again. Then I went to Knob Creek, Kentucky.
The Knob Creek gun range, in West Point, Kentucky is the home of the country's largest machine gun shoot. This small rural town is a Mecca for gun enthusiasts and the weaponry both on display and for sale makes the Somalian gun market look like a neighborhood yard sale. During my time in Knob Creek, I watched everyone from 9-year-old grandsons to 80-year-old grandmas fire off everything from 9mm pistols to 50 caliber machine guns.
The show at Knob Creek is a stark reminder that America, not Somalia, or Iraq, or Yemen, or Afghanistan is the most armed nation in the world. There are over 200 million guns in circulation in this country and as many as 40 percent of American households report they keep a gun in the home. Guns are imprinted in the DNA of American culture. Whether it's the aggrandized bravado of gun-slinging cowboys taming the wild west (in reality it probably was the plow-slinging farmers who were most responsible for western expansion), the notion of self-defense, or the idea that a group of Freemen in Montana are the constitutional check against the tyrannical government; Americans are passionate about their firearms.
America's infatuation with guns comes at a price. That price is that last year over 10,000 people were killed with firearms. There are many explanations for this, and gun proponents will say that legal firearms prevented far more crime than was actually caused by guns. But the truth remains, that the larger the pool of legal guns in the country -- the larger the pool of illegal guns that can be used in crimes. This happens for several reasons. There is a migration between the pool of legal and illegal guns in the country from theft, from straw-man purchases, or from legal loopholes. One of these loopholes is knows as "parts kits." These are essentially everything you need to make an assault rifle, minus a barrel and receiver. If those parts are then purchased separately, they can be fashioned into illegal, untraceable assault rifles. The ability to buy parts kits is a big draw at shows like Knob Creek.
For many of the patrons of the Knob Creek gun show, there is no correlation between their hobby and gun related crime (in fact they would assert that their hobby actually prevents crime), instead they are merely expressing what they believe is a guaranteed constitutional right. This spring the Supreme Court will take up this exact issue. It will be the most important legal debate on the subject in almost 70 years. The court will potentially decide on whether the 2nd amendment is interpreted as an individual right or a collective right. When they do, the precedent set will determine not only the fate of events like Knob Creek, but will fundamentally impact a culture that worships their weapons.
Beyond the politics of gun control, shows like Knob Creek do represent a segment of America that believes guns are a way of life. As a former member of the military, I am both comfortable and conversant with guns, but feel distant from the zeal I saw demonstrated at Knob Creek. But for a large swath of the country, the right to bear arms is an expression of their lifestyle and patriotism.
Kaj Larsen's pod, "Machine Gun Shootout" airs Wednesday, December 12 at 7pm PST/10PM EST in a half hour special report on Current TV.
Kaj Larsen is an award-winning Vanguard Journalist for Current TV. He is a former US Navy SEAL, and an executive board member of the Center for Citizen Leadership, a non-profit dedicated to mentoring wounded veterans into Public Service. He holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.