Ronald Kieloch, an Annandale management consultant, recalls with a tinge of bitterness the turkey shoot and picnic he heard about in Virginia's Spotsylvania County.

An acquaintance invited a few friends and a reporter for a local paper, and, as Kieloch remembers, the reporter "wrote a really nice story." A week after the story appeared, Kieloch said, the man who hosted the party "got a notice in the mail from the county zoning office telling him his land had been rezoned and he was to cease and desist shooting on it."

County officials, it turned out, were not amused that the weapons used in the outing had been machine guns.

To Kieloch, who owns three machine guns that he uses for target practice, it was simply another instance of the public misinterpreting the motives of well-meaning sportsmen and collectors who were not violating any law.

Despite a colorful, highly mythologized and largely lethal history, machine guns are permitted in 38 states, including Virginia and Maryland, and are far more common and readily available than most people imagine. The District prohibits the possession of any automatic weapon.

Nationwide, about 4,500 people were granted permits to buy a machine gun in 1983 alone. As of May 10 this year, there were 101,361 legally owned fully automatic weapons in circulation in the United States, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

About half of those are in the hands of individuals, the bureau estimates, mostly collectors, nostalgic veterans and gun buffs who say there is no shooting thrill compared to that the user can get from a machine gun.

"It's a very common misperception that possession is prohibited," said Gary Shaible of the federal firearms agency. "Really the only requirement for ownership is that the firearm be registered in the name of the possessor."

"I suspect people would be surprised at the number of machine guns that are around," said Fairfax County Police Chief Col. Carroll Buracker.

Buracker is one of many law enforcement officials concerned that the availability of the weapons makes it inevitable that they will be used in committing crimes or acts of violence.

In an incident in Fairfax County last winter, for example, William H. Hamilton, 35, of Front Royal, Va., was shot and killed by another motorist with a Ruger mini-14 machine gun after what police called a "traffic altercation" and a 17-mile chase.

Gary S. Fadden, who fired the shots, later pleaded self-defense and was found not guilty of second-degree murder and a gun charge by a Fairfax County jury.

"I'm concerned about machine guns from a law enforcement point of view," Buracker said. "If my police officers are dispatched to a situation and arrive on the scene, clearly if there is someone with a machine gun, they don't have the firepower to protect themselves."

"It is so incredible that in this day and age in America, anyone who wants one can get a license to own a machine gun," said Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., a sometime hunter and a former marine. "I can't conceive of any reason why any person should have an operable machine gun."

There are 1,200 legally registered machine guns in Maryland, according to state police. Virginia State Police also require automatic weapons to be registered, but they refused to say how many are registered in the state.

The state registration is in addition to a federal law requiring anyone who buys a machine gun to first obtain a permit. The law says that the only Americans over the age of 21 who can be denied the right to buy a machine gun are convicted felons, known drug addicts, persons who have been dishonorably discharged from the military and those who have been committed to a mental hospital.

According to federal firearms agency officials, it takes from six to 10 months for the government to process applications from those wanting to purchase machine guns. For each application approved, the government collects a $200 tax.

But the time and money required do not mean that applicants are subject to extensive scrutiny; the government checks only for records of felonies, dishonorable military discharges, drug addiction or time spent in a mental hospital. Maryland and Virginia officials, for their part, do not conduct any inquiries, and registration there is automatic once a person obtains a federal permit and notifies the state.

The National Coalition to Ban Handguns, which began considering the machine gun issue this year, thinks the weapons are too readily available, according to general counsel Michael Hancock. "We think there is no justification whatsoever for machine guns," Hancock said. "It's not a sporting weapon, it has no real use aside from crime and should not be allowed on the streets."

But many of the tens of thousands of legal owners of machine guns vigorously disagree with that view.

"That question -- 'Why do you need one?' -- comes up a lot from people who aren't involved with them," said Everett Moore, publisher of Firepower and Survival Weapons and Tactics magazines, as well as a line of books that tell how to convert a semiautomatic weapon to an automatic one.

"I don't come around and say, 'Why would anyone want to play golf?' -- although I would never play," Moore said. "Machine guns are a heckuva lot of fun . . . . If you've never fired one yourself, it's something you have to do. Set up a row of empty beer cans and play Eliot Ness for a while."

Dealers and owners say there is widespread ignorance about machine guns and the people who own them, in part because gun owners fear being looked on as "crazies" and thus tend to be extremely private about their ownership.

"I guess there are as many reasons for wanting a machine gun as for anything else," said Kieloch. "For some, it is the ultimate cap pistol -- fun, noisy. People get a blast out of it. At the other end of the spectrum are the martial collectors, who see them as a piece of history and a good investment."

Robert Lennox, an Arlington locksmith and gun dealer licensed to sell automatic weapons, said much of the interest in the guns comes from "ex-military people, who just want to have what they had in the war."

Many machine gun owners never fire their weapons, say gun dealers. They are collectors who simply like to have them, "just like some people like to collect butterflies or stamps," according to Lennox, who owns a gleaming Thompson sub-machine gun, the notorious "Tommy gun" that made the Twenties roar.