By Steve Robrahn
WEST POINT, Ky (Reuters) - The traffic jam began just off Dixie Highway - the four-lane U.S. 60 route between Louisville and Fort Knox - and crept through a hilly autumn forest for more than a mile to the Knob Creek Gun Range.
The slow-moving snarl last weekend brought upwards of 17,000 people to Knob Creek's three-day Machine Gun Shoot, an event that twice a year draws machine gun collectors and enthusiasts from around the country to test out weapons like Tommy Guns, water-cooled Brownings and M16s.
"Guns aren't bad," said Knob Creek manager Kenny Sumner. "They're only bad when the wrong people have them."
The event, which started in the 1970s and bills itself as the country's largest, shows the attraction for some people of firing off renowned big guns, even as the presidential candidates spar over whether modern military-style weapons should be allowed in civilian hands.
In the recent debate, President Barack Obama said he would back an assault weapons ban, while Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he's not in favor of such a law, though he signed one while governor of Massachusetts.
Machine gun shoots like Knob Creek - and this weekend's competing Big Sandy shoot in Arizona - offer enthusiasts a rare opportunity to get their hands on fully automatic weapons, which can be difficult to buy under federal laws, and to fire a variety of them.
Most of the guns used and sold at machine gun shoots are fairly old. Federal law prohibits private individuals from possessing or acquiring machine guns other than those lawfully registered before 1986.
Inside the gates of the Knob Creek Shoot, gun dealers mingled with Tea Party activists and sport shooters. Knives, ammunition, all types of guns and accessories, and bumper stickers were on sale from about 225 vendors.
There were military insignias, tri-cornered hats and "Don't Tread on Me" flags. At least one booth sold flags and banners with swastikas, and uniformed paramilitary groups also displayed signs bearing the Nazi symbol.
Most of the vendors were arrayed around the range's main firing line, the event's center stage with weapons pre-positioned on tripods or other mounts.
Concession stands and the National Rifle Association signup booth shared prime real estate next to a line of packed bleachers. Nearly everyone used ear protection to counter the extreme roar from the simultaneous firing of well over a dozen machine guns only a few feet away.
Dust, smoke and the smell of gunpowder filled the air.
Targets included old appliances, cars and boats spread out down a narrow, wooded valley, some perched on the hillsides, others right handy to the shooters. Some were set ablaze by tracer bullets. The night show, which featured barrels of fuel with pyrotechnic charges attached, resulted in fiery mushroom clouds and fireballs.
Admission for adults was $10. The crowd was almost entirely white, with twice as many men as women. Kids under age 12, mostly boys, some riding their fathers' shoulders, got in for half price. Some even got to have their own quality time with an assault weapon.
Nine-year-old Cody Miller from Cincinnati was among them. At a secondary firing range a few hundred yards from the main one, a gun range assistant laid an empty ammo box on the ground for the youngster to stand on to fire a Soviet-made PKS heavy machine gun.
"Are you ready for this?" the spotter asked. The boy nodded and opened fire as his proud father looked on and photographed the scene. Cody said this was his second year firing machine guns. No big deal, he shrugged.
"We shoot a lot," explained his father, Jeff Miller.
Joshua Horwitz, director of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said his group has no position on organized shooting events like Knob Creek.
"Our feeling is that if you're going to use a firearm, that's the place to do it - on a range," said Horwitz, whose organization is typically at odds with the National Rifle Association on relaxing gun laws.
Horwitz said he does see something disturbing in the symbolism and right-wing themes that sometimes emerge at shoots.
"Often at these events ... we see vestiges of the insurrectionist idea - the idea that firearms are to be stockpiled and used against the government," he said.
Many people who attend such events profess patriotism, he said, but "their contempt for the government borders on treason.
"I worry far more about the political ideology of these events than I do the firearms."
(Reporting by Steve Robrahn; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Prudence Crowther)