“Everybody I’ve talked to has been against it. I’m a gun person. This is not anti-gun. This is anti-noise. I don’t want to worry about my sons going into the woods and being shot by a stray bullet.”
– Terry Trimble, vice president, Sunset Acres Homeowners Association (Tacoma, Washington), January 3, 2000
Because of their inherently obnoxious nature, shooting ranges have a serious public relations problem, as summed up by Dennis C. Eggers, assistant director of the NRA’s Hunter Services Division:
The reality is this – if the majority of the affected general public is opposed to that range, or just doesn’t care one way or the other, the range is doomed. It’s just a matter of time.138
Eggers’ pessimistic proclamation of doom is typical of the Chicken Little mindset of America’s gun culture. But reality shows that fighting back against a shooting range is often a costly, slow, uphill battle, complicated by protective special-interest legislation and behind-the-scenes deals by vested interests. Here are a few examples culled from news clips and public records:
- Like most states, Texas doesn’t keep records of how many shooting ranges exist within its borders, how many injuries occur at them, or what kind of complaints are filed against them. And Texas counties have no authority to regulate shooting ranges. As a result, conflicts between residents and range owners often end up in civil court. A group of Austin homeowners, for example, spent $100,000 in a three-year battle that was only partly successful.139
- The residents of a small town in Maine have fought for five years to reduce the noise from a private shooting range. “It can go from irritating pops to ear-shattering blasts,” said one of the residents in describing the noise.140Their efforts have been frustrated in large part by a special interest “range-protection law” rammed through the state legislature by the NRA. (Range protection laws are discussed in more detail below.)
- Homeowners near Des Moines, Iowa, were startled three years ago when Polk County allowed a new shooting range to open across the street from their residential neighborhood. The noise was so bad, complained one resident, that he couldn’t carry on a conversation, watch television, or sleep. Efforts to shut down the range slowed to a crawl in the county zoning commission.141
- A Pennsylvania court allowed a township and some of its residents to sue the Pennsylvania Game Commission last year to block a shooting range on the grounds that the commission violated its own procedures and a commissioner misled both the commission and individual taxpayers about details of the range, including supposed lack of opposition and no cost to the state.142
- Residents of Land O’Lakes, Florida, took it on the chin when they missed a court filing deadline to appeal dismissal of a law suit against Pasco County commissioners.143 Reversing an earlier vote, the county commission ruled in favor of a shooting range backed by powerful investors, including retired Army General Norman Schwarzkopf and NRA top lobbyist James Baker, amid allegations that one commissioner had “sold his vote for future campaign contributions.”144
- Residents of a Fort Worth neighborhood struggled for two years before they were apparently able to end operation of a nine-range gun club. Their complaints included noise, lead contamination, stray bullets, and accumulation of trash and debris.145
These few representative cases merely scratch the surface of scores of other instances in which ordinary people have found themselves locked in frustrating struggles with shooting ranges and their political and industry friends.146
“Range Protection”ï¿½The NRA Gag Laws
Lawsuits are one avenue that the general public has traditionally been forced to use to keep shooting ranges under control. The courts have often held shooting ranges to high standards, according to Anne Kimball, an attorney for the gun industry. She stated:
Because of the nature of the activity and the use of firearms at shooting ranges, courts have generally looked at shooting ranges somewhat differently than they have looked at bowling alleys, driving ranges, and other recreational facilities….
A number of courts have held shooters and operators of shooting ranges to a higher degree of care than the owners and operators of other establishments….Some courts have held firearms users to the highest degree of care.147
Lawsuits and other legal remedies against shooting ranges have usually been pursued by neighbors, neighborhood associations, or local governments, particularly zoning boards, environmental action groups, and regulatory agencies. There are a number of theories on which lawsuits against shooting ranges might be based. For example, if range activity has caused actual injury or death, various forms of tort action might be pursued to seek monetary compensation. If the shooting range is operating or proposes to operate in an area not zoned for such activity, zoning violations can form the basis of a lawsuit or regulatory proceeding. Poor control of hazardous materials is a basis for litigation under environmental laws.
But absent torts, zoning violations, or environmental violations, neighbors, associations, and local governments have traditionally relied on “nuisance” theories and noise control laws to abate shooting-range activity.
Nuisance lawsuits are based on the general premise, according to the NRA’s general counsel, that “no person is absolutely free to perform acts that others find offensive or that interfere with others’ rights to safety and the quiet enjoyment of their own property.”148 These lawsuits usually seek an injunction, either closing the range or forcing it to change its operations so as to lessen its obnoxious effects (e.g., stopping night shooting). State or local laws and regulations also often set noise limits, so that government officials can take regulatory or legal action against ranges that violate such limits.149
Nuisance law suits based on noise and noise abatement proceedings represent a serious obstacle to the gun industry’s range expansion strategy. If neighbors whose tranquility and property values will be dramatically reduced by a shooting range can stop it from opening or expanding by appealing to the courts, the gun industry’s national strategy will be seriously impeded, no matter how much of a federal tax subsidy it receives.
Well aware of this, the NRA devised and has quietly implemented a plan to frustrate the will of the general public. The NRA’s ploy has been to hide shooting ranges from judicial scrutiny behind the skirts of state “range-protection” laws. These laws effectively bully ordinary people into submission by denying them access to the courts for relief from the most obnoxious features of shooting ranges.
History and effect of the “range-protection” laws. Range-protection statutes vary in detail but most are “very broad” and “protect shooting ranges from civil action and criminal prosecution in matters relating to noise or ï¿½noise pollution’ resulting from operations of the range.”150
The solicitous nature of these laws toward shooting ranges is neither an accident nor a response to broad popular will. From the very first “range-protection” law to the most recent, they have been a creation of the NRA, so quietly introduced and slickly passed through state legislatures that the public has by and large been unaware of their passage and of their devastating effect on neighborhoods exposed to shooting ranges.
The first range-protection law, according to Robert N. Pemberton, Sr., administrator of the NRA’s range conference program, was herded to passage in New Hampshire by Doris Reilly, “a New Hampshire legislator and wife of former NRA president Dick Reilly.”151
Delaware’s experience is an interesting and illuminating example of the NRA’s strong-arm tactics. The director of Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife presented a case study at the first shooting range symposium in 1990, describing (under the title “Maintaining Good Neighbor Relations”) how the state’s “premier” shooting facility worked out noise problems with its neighbors under existing laws.152 Nevertheless, not content with an arrangement that clearly worked, the NRA later rammed a range protection law through the Delaware state legislature.
In short, the NRA, the gun industry in general, and the range industry in particular continue to use special-interest muscle to inflict noise, pollution, and public health harm on the general public so that a dwindling minority of range users can enjoy their destructive “shooting sports.”