TREASURY OFFICIALS WILLIAM EARLE AND TERRY

Cates may be the busiest bureaucrats in Washington. Along with a squad of seven examiners, they've finally dug out of an avalanche of paperwork that began more than a year ago. Their job? Processing applications from companies that want to register machine guns to sell to the public. Machine guns? That's right, and plenty of them.

The fat hit the fan last year when federal gun laws were revised, according to Earle, who heads the firearms and explosives division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"At one point, we had stacks of applications three feet high," adds Cates, who is the chief of the National Firearms Act branch of BATF. "But the paperwork is just about complete now."

For a long time, Americans didn't really want many machine guns. In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, which, among other things, put a $200 transfer tax on any sale or transfer of a machine gun. A handful of T-men licked the tax stamps and saw that Tommy guns and the like were registered. They didn't exactly burn out on the job.

Until spring of last year, in fact, only 122,000 automatic weapons had ever been registered. But in April and May of 1986, 100,000 registration applications for machine guns were filed with Earle, Cates and the folks at BATF -- about 50 years' worth in less than two months. What happened?

Popular interest in machine guns had apparently been growing, fueled by the Rambo movies and TV series like "Miami Vice." Survivalists and dope dealers seemed to favor them. So on April 10, 1986, Congress passed a bill making it illegal for John Q. Public to purchase newly manufactured machine guns. President Reagan didn't sign it into law, however, until May 19.

"That left a 'window' of about 40 days during which manufacturers could register machine guns still transferable to individuals," explains Earle. "Guns not restricted to export, military or police sales are more valuable, so manufacturers wanted to register as many as possible before the deadline."

Earle and Cates say about 40,000 applications eventually were disapproved for various reasons. But by this July, there were a total of 184,000 legally registered machine guns -- up a staggering 62,000 from the previous year. Had Congress shot itself in the foot?

"It's too soon to tell," says Earle. "The apparent intent of Congress was to freeze the number of machine guns available to the public, which has been done."

"On the other hand," interjects Cates, "guns last a long time."

He can say that again. In a recent issue of Shotgun News -- "The Trading Post for anything that shoots" -- an ad featured several non-restricted, fully functional Thompson submachine guns for sale. They were made in 1921.