An array of federal, state, and local environmental, safety, and land-use laws can shut down your favorite range or club. Here’s what you can do to stop such action.
Imagine that you’ve gathered up your shooting equipment in preparation for driving to your favorite shooting facility. Your .45 bullseye gun is nestled snugly in its case, and you’re otherwise loaded for bear, expecting to shoot as much as humanly possible on a beautiful spring day. But, lo, as you approach the shooting club, you see a notice pinned to the gate. It reads, “Closed until further notice.” Inside the fence, you see dust clouds kick up on the deserted parking lot, and you wonder what in the world is going on. What has happened to your favorite range?
The answer: Any number of environmental, legal, and safety issues may shut down a range, especially in areas near large numbers of people. City and suburban shooting sites are at particular risk to challenges about lead pollution, noise, bullet escapement, and safety concerns—mainly because people living near a shooting facility, many of whom don’t shoot, wouldn’t mind closing your range down.
Whether you’re a range owner, a range customer, a member of a shooting club, or even a once-a-year hunting-rifle sight-in visitor, you have a stake in keeping convenient shooting sites plentiful and accessible. Following are warning signs that point to your range being a candidate for shutdown, and strategies that can keep it open.
Will Your Range Be There?
At an NRA Range Development Conference in San Diego March 12-16, we learned that lack of environmental awareness is the number-one cause of firing range closures. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deals with the “outdoor” aspect of any range, such as lead disposal, leaching/migration of lead, or other pollution. Because nearly every range has some lead contamination, it’s an almost universal problem. Also, because lead-contamination rules can be implemented at the federal, state, or local levels, there’s a variety of challenges gun-range opponents can use to close a facility.
A case in point is the recent decision by a federal district court judge in Long Island Soundkeeper Fund, Inc. et al. v. New York Athletic Club.
Environmental attorneys Daniel Riesel and Steven Russo of Sive, Paget & Riesel, P.C., say in range-conference documents that the New York Athletic Club has operated a trap range on property adjoining the Long Island Sound in Pelham, New York, since the 19th Century. “The concrete pads where the shooters stand are located approximately 25 yards from the Long Island Sound, and shooters face the Sound and fire shot at targets that are launched over the water,” they report.
Local environmental groups sued the NYAC in 1994, alleging the shooters’ group violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) by firing a hazardous substance—lead—into the Sound. “Plaintiffs [environmental groups] asserted that the trap range violated the CWA because the shot, targets and associated debris entering the water were unpermitted ‘discharges’ of pollutants from a ‘point source’ prohibited by the CWA,” according to Riesel and Russo. Also, the suit said that the trap range was regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and that the NYAC had violated that statute by treating, storing, or disposing of solid hazardous wastes without a permit.
In 1995, U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson issued what might be termed a split decision in the NYAC suit. He dismissed claims that the club should be regulated as a hazwaste source under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and that the club didn’t need a “dredge and fill” permit under the Clean Water Act, Riesel and Russo point out. But the judge did write that the trap shooting range, “which is directed to concentrate shooting activity from a few specific points and systematically direct it in a single direction—over Long Island Sound—is an identifiable source from which spend shot and target fragments are conveyed into navigable waters of the United States.” He prohibited the club from operating until it had obtain the proper CWA permits from the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
But for fans of Joseph Heller, here’s a neat Catch-22: The EPA and DEC didn’t have programs in place to issue the necessary Clean Water permits, even though they had submitted friend of the court briefs asserting the trap range was regulated under the Clean Water Act. “Indeed, months before its lawyers submitted a brief on the issue, the DEC had informed NYAC that it [the DEC] did not regulate shooting ranges under the CWA and did not believe that the CWA required shooting ranges to obtain CWA permits. To date, DEC has not issued any CWA permit for a shooting range, although permit applications will likely be submitted in light of the federal court ruling,” state Riesel and Russo.
Performance Shooter Recommends
Performance Shooter believes the outcome in this case should concern gun owners, because its reasoning could threaten many pistol, rifle, and shotgun ranges that overlook water or wetlands—such as Camp Perry in Ohio, which sits adjacent to Lake Erie’s southern shore.
Lead is a serious problem for most shooting ranges. If it isn’t disposed of in the right way or properly or contained—especially around water—NRA’s range experts say legal challenges can close a facility. They recommend erecting backstops to keep lead out of water sources, removing lead periodically to prevent leaching, or stabilizing lead with chemicals to keep it from contaminating water sources.
Most shooters follow the standard safety rules because they don’t want to be shot, nor do they want to shoot anybody else. But following safety procedures may also keep your favorite range from being shut down.
The NRA says maintaining public safety is a prime consideration at any range, both for people on the range and passersby. NRA range engineer John Joines said, “Projectiles escaping from firing ranges is another major reason ranges are closed.” He added that this safety issue has been neglected at many firing ranges in the United States, and it has led directly to range closures—even when it may only be the appearance of unsafe conditions at a range.
Case in point: A Baton Rouge outdoor rifle and pistol range was bordered by agricultural areas. A downrange landowner complained that he “thought” he heard a bullet hit near him. At public hearings to decide if the range would stay open or be closed, the landowner’s opinion that the range was a hazard, even though he offered no physical evidence to support his claim, was enough to shutter the facility.
Also, using a range for something it was not designed for has cost ranges a lot of money or caused many ranges to close, the NRA experts said. A Texas outdoor range lost a civil suit after a member’s son was accidentally killed by a stray bullet. The situation: The range had a series of downrange baffles, which from the firing line prevented shooters from seeing any “blue sky.” Those baffles were designed to keep rounds from leaving the shooting area, as long as the shooter stayed on the firing line. However, shooters were allowed to go downrange to fire at IPSC-type targets. One shooter shot a round over the backstop, and it entered a building behind the range. It traveled through several walls and ceilings before striking the boy in the side of the head. This was a tragic accident which may have been prevented had shooters stayed on the original firing line.
Performance Shooter Recommends
Almost every range-safety incident can be attributed to a shooter breaking fundamental rules of gun safety:
1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
3. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond.
Not only will shooters be safer by following these rules, they can also ensure that their favorite shooting sites stay open when they follow gun-safety rules.
The National Rifle Association estimates that approximately 10,000 firing ranges operate in the U.S., and the National Shooting Sports Foundation mails out its “The Gun Club Advisor” newsletter to 6,000 clubs in the U.S. Though neither organization keeps tabs on how many ranges close each year, shooters know that challenges to range operation occur every day—some for no reasons other than anti-gun sentiment in a community.
To ignore that such sentiment exists is to risk being closed down—even if your range or club does everything else right, said Christine Evans, assistant manager of NRA’s range department.
To put the best possible foot forward in a public discussion or debate about a range’s status, range owners, club members, and even range customers need to know what to say—and what not to say—about the shooting sports:
• A firearm is not a weapon. The word weapon gives a negative connotation to the public about firearms use and safety.
• Sound is not noise. Any recreational or business activity will generate sound, and most firearms sound is acceptable with the proper ear protection. The word noise is objectionable to many people, and shouldn’t be used when describing sound generated by guns.
• Recyclable lead is not “hazardous waste,” for obvious reasons.
• A shooting range provides community service for local law-enforcement agencies, public firearms education, and tax revenues for local government.
Performance Shooter Recommends
Recognizing problem areas at ranges and knowing how to fix them can ensure that your favorite firearms facility stays open. Of course, if taking these steps makes your range a better, more comfortable, safer, and more popular place to shoot, then everybody benefits. After all, you can’t improve your performance without a decent place to shoot.