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The World And War: Taking Aim On Politics At Kentucky's Machine Gun Festival

Two tanks roll through the muck and onto the range. The crew members ready the guns.

Behind them, thousands of onlookers watch silently, smartphones fixed for the coming action. Just then, a helicopter rumbles overhead and a chorus of blasts rings out.

The display of American firepower is a halftime show of sorts at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot. The biannual event attracts thousands of people to a gun range in West Point, Kentucky, to shoot machine guns, peruse vendors and socialize.

"There ain't nowhere else like it," says Lawrence Holmes.

The 31-year-old is a regular at the event. He lives in Winston Salem, North Carolina, but has made a trip to the small town just outside Fort Knox every year since he was 12 years old.

"One of the greatest things that goes on in America," he says of the event.

This year he brought his good friend, Chris Young. And as the two walk among the booths outside the main gun shop, their conversation turns from guns to world affairs.

Just a day earlier, President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airfield in response to the use of chemical weapons on civilians allegedly by Bashaar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

Holmes gives credit to Trump for what he calls a "damn good job." Many others at the machine gun shoot agree.

Taylor Pickerell, 26, came from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to pick up parts and shoot guns. He said the message from Trump is clear.

"If you're going to go around killing civilians, then somebody is going to bomb you," he said.

Bob Snoeberger, 55, drove from Lafayette, Indiana, for the shoot. He says the attack on Syria was a long time coming.

"That's the second time that particular dictator has done that to the people of his country," he says.

But some are aren't so sure about what happens next. U.S. officials said the missile strikes were meant to send a message to Assad. Others, however, warn further action could lead to war with Russia.

War is a backdrop of this machine gun shoot. Men dress as soldiers. Many of the guns they shoot are known for precision or power on the battlefield. Hats and shirts throughout pay homage to the service of veterans.

Still, not all here are quick to call for combat.

Anthony Cain, 22, made a day trip to the shoot from Somerset, Kentucky. He works third shift at a factory and has shot guns since he was a child. He says war should not be an option.

"Just because I'm a gun owner doesn't mean I can't be a humanitarian," he says.

Jerry Miller, 73, takes a moment to remember his time in Vietnam when asked about sending soldiers to battle.

"It was an experience," he says. "I wouldn't do it again."

Still, Miller acknowledges that when world issues arise, it's usually the U.S. that has to step in.

"Just another time they're going to have to step up and do the right thing," he says.

For Chris Young, from Winston-Salem, the question of when and why to go to war is difficult to answer. He says war should only be called for "the right reason."

What that reason is, he says, he doesn't know.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.