MOHAVE COUNTY, Ariz. —
A cannon isn't technically a machine gun, since it fires one round at a time. But shooters can shoot anything at the Big Sandy Shoot, including homemade bowling ball launchers.
I join several ear-protected onlookers staring at the cannon. Someone says it was built in 1942. We're careful not to stand directly behind, in case it backfires.
The cannon guy is oblivious to the attention. He's a graceful, slender man with a cryptic smile. He looks to be in his 40s and wears a Panama hat, an immaculate sports shirt and tailored slacks, as though he'll soon be heading off to a golf game at the club. He's in a cannon-firing Zen trance, mechanically loading and shooting, loading and shooting, loading and shooting. Later, I ask him his name. He won't give it. He doesn't want to be photographed. He looks rich.
But then again, there must be a lot of rich people here. Machine guns sell for tens of thousands of dollars, thanks to Ronald Reagan. In 1986 the Republican president signed the Firearms Owners' Protection Act, which prohibited the general public from owning, buying, or selling machine guns manufactured after the 1986 law took effect. Broadly, the law says military and law enforcement officials can still own machine guns, but civilians can only own machine guns that were grandfathered in.
"Machine guns available to the public are a finite resource," Jose Wall, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix, told me before I left for the shoot. "So what's in circulation back then  is in circulation now." And that's a little less than 100,000 machine guns, Wall told me.
All of this explains why from the get-go the machine guns at the Big Sandy Shoot seem always to be giving the shooters trouble. Something about the way the shooters use wrenches and rubber hammers to coax the guns to shoot again reminds me of taxistas tinkering with ancient Fords in Havana.