DOUGLAS, Arizona (Reuters) - An odd contraption in retired firefighter Alex Black's cluttered garage looks a bit like the hand winch at the top of a well. In fact, it is a machinegun.
Turning the shiny brass handle spat out a withering hail of bullets that transformed modern warfare.
"You march in to battle in straight lines against this, and nobody comes back," said Black, standing beside the hefty, carriage-mounted Colt Gatling Gun, which he restored over the course of a decade.
Black, who lives in this sleepy ranching town on the Arizona-Mexico border, is one of millions of gun collectors in the United States, where authorities estimate that there are more than 200 million firearms held in private hands in a country of 300 million people.
The American affinity for guns may puzzle foreigners who link high ownership rates and liberal gun ownership laws to the 84 gun deaths and 34 gun homicides that occur in the United States each day and wonder why gun control is not an issue in the U.S. presidential election.
The owners are not just urban criminals and drug dealers. There are hunters and home security advocates, and then there are the gun collectors.
"People are 'Oh, you collect guns, you must be bad.' That's nonsense. Gun collectors aren't criminals, they are nobody to be frightened of," says Black, one of several hobby collectors in this small Arizona town.
"I love machinery, and I love history, and history was written with firearms," he said. "They were probably the most spectacular things ever built."
Aside from the rare 1895 machinegun, similar to ones used by Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War in Cuba, the soft-spoken retiree has a large selection of antique military weapons from the 19th and 20th centuries at his home.
The arsenal of revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, rifles and carbines spans conflicts from the American Civil War right up to World War Two, and all the guns are legally held.
A LOT LIKE GOLF
Black's friend Lynn Kartchner is another self-described "gun nut" who lives in Douglas. He has a private arsenal of around 100 handguns, shotguns and rifles of all sorts which he uses for everything from hunting prairie dogs and rabbits to target shooting.
"The richer the golfer, the more clubs he owns," he told Reuters at a Sunday morning pistol shoot at the Douglas Rifle & Pistol Club, where he can usually count on meeting up with a number of like-minded enthusiasts.
"You have a golf club for every angle and range, whether you're lying in the grass or lying in the sand trap. It's the same with gun nuts," he said.
When he is out hunting, he carries a small .22 caliber pistol in his pocket in case he stumbles upon a coyote or a jack rabbit. He has shotguns of various gauges to shoot springing quail or wild duck, and rifles to pop off prairie dogs over an afternoon in the countryside with a case of beer.
For target shooting he has everything from small bore target pistols to powerful .45 caliber revolvers for quick-draw cowboy shoots, to semi-automatic assault rifles and heavy caliber sniper rifles for precision tournaments.
"It's a humongous gun," he says of one of one of his favorites, an antique Winchester rifle. "It's been putting bullets one on top of the other since 1935. At 100 meters you can hit a golf ball with every shot."
SOURCE OF POWER
Kartchner and Black say they take care to keep their weapons secure in locked gun safes and secure rooms to prevent accidents and thefts.
Both are firm believers in the individual right to bear arms to protect themselves and their families, and have a wide variety of firearms which they say are for self defense. The U.S. Supreme Court begins examining that right on March 18. (For a story on the Supreme Court case click on)
Black, in his late sixties, has handguns including a historic Colt 1911 model semiautomatic pistol to protect his home, and says that, while he hopes he never has to shoot anyone, would not hesitate to do so if threatened.
"I like to be self sufficient, I don't want to be a slave to anybody, it's not going to happen," he says.
Kartchner has meticulously prepared the defense of his home.
He keeps a semi-automatic shotgun loaded with buck shot and heavy lead slugs behind the bedroom door, and a high-powered AR-15 assault rifle loaded in the next room.
"Guns are for projecting force," he says matter of factly, distinguishing firearms from other collectibles.
"Mao Zedong said 'power grows from the barrel of a gun,' and indeed it does."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Eddie Evans)