Virginia is home to more fully automatic machine guns than any other state in the nation, with Maryland following a close fifth.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there were 30,220 registered machine guns in Virginia, more than the populous states of Florida with 29,128, California with 28,774 and Texas with 28,690.

Maryland has 23,709 registered machine guns. The District of Columbia has 4,278 machine guns, ranking it 23rd.

Together, nearly one in eight of all the nation's 488,065 legally owned machine guns can be found in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

The Roanoke Times first reported that the Old Dominion tops the U.S. in machine guns owned.

"Why do we have so darn many in Virginia? Who knows?" said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Federal law defines a machine gun as any firearm that fires more than one shot with one pull of the trigger.

The sale of fully automatic machine guns to civilians has been severely restricted since 1934. There is some private ownership of machine guns, but owners -- mostly collectors -- must go through an extensive FBI background check, submit applications to ATF with fingerprints, photograph and signed affidavit and tax that gets into the hundreds of dollars.

It's not clear how many machine guns are owned by private citizens and how many are owned by police departments because privacy issues prevent the agency from releasing a breakdown by ownership of category, ATF officials say.

If the gun was not registered before 1986, the gun must be abandoned to the government or a government museum, said Gary Bangs, director of industry operations for the ATF.

Bangs said he's not surprised by the number of machine guns in the area.

"We have a large number of government contractors that use various weapons. There's a lot of corporations that deal in those types of weapons," Bangs said. "I don't think that anybody should read too much in those statistics."

Other factors could be 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, experts said.

The National Rifle Association has estimated that the effect of the 1986 law had been to "freeze" the number of privately owned fully-automatic firearms at roughly 150,000.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.