The contour of the hill had been changed by the impact of rifle bullets, and trees had grown tall on the berms, shading members when they repaired target frames. Sons and grandsons of members shot trap and competed in small-bore and high-power rifle matches. An indoor pistol range improved the facility, and an archery range was planned. Members were not concerned about a developer building houses above their valley and a golf course over the hill behind their berm. They had been there first. “First in time is first in right” was the slogan, and it seemed like a pretty good principle.
But that’s not how things work.
The Brickyard Range operated under a nonconforming use permit from the local zoning commission. Further, the range was not agricultural, commercial or residential. When the permit expired, the developer objected to its renewal. Never before confronted with opposition, the club went to the biggest law firm in town, told them how much money they had raised for a defense fund and asked what a defense would cost. Coincidentally, it cost exactly what the members had raised. The club was fortunate to preserve shooting on the indoor pistol range and retain the right to put in an outdoor archery and air-rifle range. The club fathers were honorable men who thought other folks would act honorably and that justice would be done.
But again, that’s not how things work.
Disputes continued between the club and developer. In the early 1990s, circular holes were noticed in low-lying areas of the club’s property. Soil samples had been taken with the intent of proving lead contamination. Such contamination would force the club or any subsequent owner to undertake expensive clean-up efforts. But perhaps the results convinced the developer to leave the club valley as a quiet country view for his expensive houses rather than try to take over lead-tainted property. That’s how things work.
Despite that lucky stigma, the Pioneer Gun Club was forced to move most of its activities farther into the country and away from its members. It had to spend lots of money and time to set out new ranges and facilities.
Feeling the Crunch
That scenario is becoming increasingly familiar. Other ranges are under attack by people who moved within earshot long after the range was built. The owners of new adjoining homes even closed down the long-established Clay County, Mo., sheriff’s range because they were upset by the sound of officers practicing to defend them.
We have learned more about range protection and attacks on ranges since the Pioneer lost most of the use of its Brickyard Range. However, that knowledge has been expensive and hard won. It’s less expensive to prevent problems. The battle to establish a Kansas City-area range illustrates the difficulties of keeping a range.
The area north of Kansas City had needed a range for years and had been promised one for almost as long. When the Parma Woods Range was proposed for southern Platte County, Mo., the plan faced a hearing before the county commissioners.
Learning of organized opposition, the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance and National Rifle Association filled the hearing room with advocates. Opponents included folks opposed to change — especially if the activity made someone happy — and people who simply hated guns and gun owners. None lived next to the proposed range, but some complained of being within hearing distance. Opponents warned that increased traffic could run over children, and that shooting would ruin property values, annoy people and terrify animals. One opponent claimed that a range would “taint” the property. The site had been a sanitary landfill and was about as tainted as it could get. Tests had proven that local trains made more noise than the range would. However, opponents complained that the type of noise was critical and the “short, sharp crack” of gunfire wasn’t as loud but was more annoying and terrifying, and would traumatize humans and animals.
Advocates stressed that if people couldn’t practice shooting on a professionally designed range, they would do so where their grandfathers had. Population increases in the area made traditional shooting spots dangerous, and a safe range was required. The deciding factor was that range visitors would patronize local businesses and paying local sales tax.
The range was approved and is now a jewel of the Missouri Department of Conservation system.
The Four Objections
Foes of the Parma Woods Range had many important-sounding excuses, but they were only excuses. Even if there had been no noise or bullets, these folks would have opposed the range because they hate gun owners.
People protecting existing ranges across the country will meet the same objections. These break into four categories: zoning, lead, safety and noise.
Zoning sets forth accepted uses of property. Even in rural areas, zoning limits land use — usually to agricultural purposes. Therefore, ranges typically require a nonconforming use permit. These permits are limited in time and renewals must be planned ahead. It might be possible to obtain a special-use permit, which provides greater security. Either way, a range must post signs proclaiming its existence. That limits claims of subsequent surrounding landowners that they were ignorant of the range.
Rural landowners often have private ranges, which they use to conduct private shooting classes. Some apply to their county government for a license to use the range for private or commercial purposes. Because there is no such license, the landowners receive a letter saying their request cannot be granted. That gives them a piece of government stationary proving they were using the range at a specific date, which provides some standing to maintain the range against later challenges.
Lead is acceptable in the ground where God put it, but when it’s dug out, molded into bullets and fired back into the ground, it’s considered toxic and cancer-causing. This complaint is often leveled against ranges. It’s even worse when lead is fired in, over or near federal wetlands. However, “wetlands” are very broadly defined, and a dry field might be deemed a wetland if beaver dams or poor drainage floods the area.
An expert in cleaning toxic waste recently explained that lead is not a danger unless it gets into the water table. Lead in the ground is not a threat unless someone eats nearby dirt for eight hours per day for a year. Even then, it’s only a threat. (Incidentally, that expert’s services are expensive but necessary to counter predictions of cancer, pronounced in the tone medieval scholars used to warn of witches and heretics.)
Safety is the No. 1 purpose of any range. Of course, that will not prevent gun haters from claiming safety violations. Ranges are blamed for every gunshot in the area. Every range has received complaints of bullets escaping the range and striking property at impossible distances.
During a recent hearing, a Massachusetts range was confronted by opponents who dumped piles of bullets they reportedly picked up on their property. However, the bullets were still loaded into cartridge cases — complete with gunpowder and primers. Other opponents are more sophisticated. The only protection is professionally designed ranges with overhead cover at firing points to prevent guns from being fired at angles that overcome the berm.
Noise was defeated years ago by the invention of silencers. However, the 1934 National Firearms Act ended that, and modern ranges must be silenced. Tree belts around the perimeter of a range and baffles at firing points minimize noise. However, only placing the range in a cave suppresses it entirely. Ranges have been placed in old mines, but that’s not a practical alternative for trap and skeet. The Parma Woods Range had to sacrifice trap and skeet to satisfy speculative noise complaints.
Build a Range-Protection Committee
Anti-gun organizations devote Web sites to teaching people how to sue ranges. Ranges must make an equal effort to survive.
Every facility must have a range-protection committee, or at least an officer. Ideally, such a committee should include someone familiar with real-estate law and their state’s range-protection statute. It should also have a relationship with an attorney. For a minor fee, lawyers will often act as the registered agent for an organization, and that saves introductions when a problem arises. It also prevents the opposition from hiring him. The lawyer does not have to be a gun guy. He just needs to know zoning and real-estate laws, and must be conversant about lead as a toxic substance. You might go to the largest law firm in your area, but such firms usually don’t represent individuals, and range members will want to be seen as people. Solo practitioners, and moderate to small firms, are usually more responsive. Larger firms have more lawyers with various strengths in different fields of law. Interview a defender before they are needed.
A defense lawyer must have trial experience. Many lawyers do great work yet never see a courtroom; partly because they do great work and partly because they don’t know how to try a case. Trying a case requires knowledge of trial rules and human nature.
In a recent case, the neighbor of a range claimed that shotgun pellets from 600 yards away passed over her home and that the ground shook when the shotguns fired. People often ask, “How can they say that?” It’s simple: They lie. Worse, they often believe their own nonsense and appear to be sincere. Trial lawyers are familiar in dealing with liars.
Trial lawyers are also experienced with juries. In one trial, the range attorney asked prospective jurors if any were hunters and was glad to see some seated. But later in the jury room, two of the “hunters” joined a vehemently anti-gun block that pushed through a verdict for the complaining neighbor. The clique convinced most of the jurors that the other neighbors — who testified they were not bothered by the range — were beholden to the range, but the plaintiff’s relatives were independent witnesses.
People, plaintiffs, witnesses and prospective jurors lie. When a prospective juror claims shooting experience, it’s necessary to follow with questions only a real shooter could answer. Also, range cases typically require expert witnesses. A good trial lawyer can translate the expert’s technical evidence into language a jury can understand.
Trial lawyers are necessary because range cases go to trial. The alternative is to give lots of money to the plaintiffs, restrict operation of the range — or both. Trials cost money, but defeat costs the use of the range.
A club’s range-protection committee must plan for the preservation of the facility. It must keep track of the expiration dates of zoning permits and protect the range from encroachment by unfriendly neighbors. That can be accomplished by covenants running with the land. For a fee, a neighbor gives up any future objection to the range. Any heir or buyer obtains the property subject to that covenant. Purchasing a future estate in neighboring property might also be useful. A future estate means the range purchases neighboring property for less than the value of the land. The seller keeps the land for his lifetime, and it reverts to the range on his death. A real-estate lawyer must write such documents so they will withstand inevitable challenges a generation later.
The committee must also maintain good relations with neighbors. It is difficult to hate someone you know and easier to do business with them. The range should have a presence at local community events — not just gun shows. Neighbors should be invited to club picnics, as should the lawyer. He needs to know the people for whom he’s fighting.
Pioneer Gun Club has created local good will by opening its range to nonmembers to sight in their rifles for deer season. Providing facilities for police training is helpful, as is providing facilities for youth groups. These activities will be useful when a court is asked to balance the usefulness of the range with shotgun blasts.
The committee must have contact with the NRA’s Range Development office and National Association of Shooting Ranges (www.rangeinfo.org). Keeping track of trends in range management and defense is invaluable. The committee must be able to call out members and friendly local folks — neighbors, Boy Scouts or the owner of a nearby gas station — to hearings that threaten the range.
The survival of shooting depends on having safe places to practice. Gun-haters know this and are coming for our ranges. Be ready.
— K.L. Jamison is an attorney from the Kansas City, Mo., area.
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