Vendors at last weekend's Havre de Grace Gun Show were quick to tell visitors that it's time more people considered the recreational potential of assault rifles.
"They're fun to shoot, really," said Terry MacFarlane, owner of Old Dominion Shows of Virginia, co-sponsor of the show. "Until you've tasted it, it's hard to understand."
But after two hours of shooter hype, Uzi-lore, flag-waving and Second Amendment-thumping, I still didn't get it.
I've been shot at twice -- once by a bored British soldier in Northern Ireland apparently looking for some target practice, and once by a psychotic running amok in a cemetery with a .357 magnum.
So, to me the "recreational value" of an assault rifle is nil.
Last weekend's gun show was co-sponsored by, of all people, the city police.
About 40 vendors offered Maryland residents older than 21 their choice of double-barrel shotguns, Derringers, .357-caliber Magnums, M-11s or M-9s.
For $1,895, buyers could go home with a semiautomatic Uzi, a combat weapon.
Display tables filled the hall with Japanese swords, silencers, 12-inch hunting knives and ammo -- "the essential accouterment," in the words of gun collector Bob Walker.
MacFarlane said he and his partner, Joan Davison, sponsor about 25 gun shows each year in Maryland and Virginia. At the Havre de Grace show, Old Dominion received 85 percent of the net proceeds.
The balance went to the co-sponsoring Havre de Grace Police for its training center, said Lt. Doug Johnson of the Havre de Grace police.
Why would the police, who have perhaps more to lose from assault rifles than civilians, agree to sponsor such an event? The Maryland State Troopers Association and other police organizations have endorsed proposals for stricter gun controls.
Johnson said co-sponsoring the show would generate enough money to allow the Training Center to operate for a three- to four-month grace period.
"Everybody gets all hyped up about automatics and semis, but they're no more dangerous than an automobile," said MacFarlane. "I enjoy taking a full automatic (machine gun) out, shooting up old refrigerators, paper targets."
Not everyone aims at Frigidaires, though.
Josh Horowitz, of the Washington-based Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence, cited statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) that show that in 1988, of the 33,717 guns traced to crimes nationwide, 3,298 (9.8 percent) were assault rifles.
MacFarlane and Rodney, a vendor who asked that his last name not be used, say they don't use their semiautomatics for hunting or protection.
But both men are vehement about their right to own them. "That's what's nice about our country," said Rodney.
Asked what he enjoys about the guns, Rodney responded, "Why do people drive fast?"
"Look, I collect automatics for the same reason other people collect stamps or violins," he added. "Suppose there was a murder and the murder weapon was a violin. Then there'd be a big fuss about banning violins. How would you feel if they came and took away your violin?
"Lots of people own semis -- doctors, lawyers. Normal people. Just don't make us out to be weirdos."
The United States is one of a few countries to permit private citizens to own semis and full automatics, weapons originally designed for military use. Imports of the Chinese AK-47 and Israeli Uzi, which together account for 80 percent of the nation's semis, have been banned since 1989. The BATF estimates that there were 80,000 semis nationwide last year, up from just 8,100 in 1986.
Rodney doesn't worry that the guns he sells might be used in a crime.
"With the prices we charge," he says, "no low-life can afford them. And that's the way we want it."
But federal law requires only that buyers be older than 18 and sign a statement that they have no criminal record, are not illegal drug users, mentally incompetent or illegal aliens. No official confirmation is required before buying the gun.
Gun show customers with budget restrictions could content themselves with the $29.95 "Hellfire trigger actuation system," which boosts the firing speed of a semi from 60 rounds to 600 rounds per minute, effectively converting it to a full automatic. The device is legal because it clips to the trigger and is not an internal modification.
Even with an unmodified semi, said Horowitz, Patrick Purdy killed five Stockton, Calif., elementary school children in January 1989, squeezing off 70 rounds in less than a minute.
Purdy had obtained the weapon despite a criminal record of narcotics and weapons convictions.
Following the Stockton killings, California enacted a ban on the sale of assault rifles. A similar ban, proposed by Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, was defeated in the Maryland House Judiciary Committee in February 1989.
Gun owners will tell you that it's not guns, but criminals that kill people.
I like the line from a Laurie Anderson song: "It's not the bullet kills you, it's the hole."