Virginia leads the nation in the number of legally owned machine guns that are fully automatic, according to federal figures.
There were 30,220 registered fully automatic machine guns in Virginia as of March. Florida had the second-highest total with 29,128, followed by California with 28,774. Nationally, there were nearly 500,000 registered machine guns, according to an annual report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Ginger Colbrun, an ATF spokeswoman, told The Roanoke Times that privacy issues prevent the agency from releasing a breakdown of ownership by category.
Virginia State Police keep a separate registry of machine gun owners, but spokeswoman Corinne Geller said a breakdown of the information is not readily available.
Federal law defines a machine gun as any weapon that will repeatedly fire more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger.
“Why do we have so darn many in Virginia? Who knows?” said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
Several factors could be at play, experts say, including an increased use of military-style equipment by police departments and a large population of retired military personnel who might own machine guns as collector items.
There also is the fun factor, for those who can afford the weapons, which sell for $10,000 or more.
“They are a blast to shoot,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League.
“They are a hell of a lot of fun. Shooting a gun is fun anyway, and this just magnifies it.”
Fully automatic weapons are rarely used to commit crimes, Schrad and others said.
Requirements for owning and selling the weapons are more stringent than for other firearms.
Prospective owners must submit photographs and fingerprints for a registry maintained by the ATF. They also must submit a signed statement by the chief law enforcement officer in the locality where they live, stating there is no indication the machine gun would be used illegally.
Gun dealers must have a special license from the federal government to sell machine guns.
“Machine guns actually are a really good example of why strong gun laws work,” said Daniel Vice, senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Cases involving illegal machine guns are uncommon, said Brian McGinn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office for Western Virginia.