The Demise of Outdoor Ranges?

Recently I read an interesting article in a local newspaper regarding outdoor firing ranges. The piece dealt with the closing of civilian pistol ranges in several states. It was prompted by a complaint filed by a Minnesota woman who was allegedly struck by a projectile (or fragment thereof) from a firing range located about a half-mile from her house.

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There’s no evidence that the object that struck her came from the range. In fact, there’s no evidence that the object she was struck by was even a bullet fragment. But as most law enforcement officers know, the trend nowadays has gone from reporting news to creating news. So, the piece took the usual anti-gun twists and turns and ended, of course, with the question of whether outdoor police ranges should be closed, too.

Environmental Dispute
During my time as a range master in upstate New York, I saw the demolition of our local academy’s tire house because of a small, but vocal, group of environmentalists. They petitioned local lawmakers to shut down the shoot house because they feared that someone—who?—might penetrate the secure facility—how?—set fire to the tires and create an environmental holocaust.

So, in a knee-jerk reaction, it was dismantled and the tires trucked to an unsecured remote location while the politicians pondered the future of several thousand blemished tires of assorted sizes and tread designs. Of course, no one was really worried about those mounds of tires being set ablaze. They just wanted to make sure they weren’t being used for police firearms training.

When we continued to use the outdoor facility for training, sans the tire house, the hue and cry continued for another year or so until the “100-year tire fire” fear was expanded to include the worry of lead from the berms seeping into a nearby creek and poisoning the wildlife. Visions of six-legged frogs and two-headed fish proved too much for the electorate and that beautiful facility (complete with full-service portable classrooms) was soon abandoned.

It became obvious that the environmental factors were nothing more than a subterfuge. Either the neighbors just didn’t like the fact that cops were out there shooting guns or some developer thought the acreage could be put to better use. That outdoor range was not only used for running tactical courses, but for sub gun and rifle training as well. For awhile, our indoor range became the primary training facility for our department until we worked out a deal to share a portion of a local civilian outdoor gun-club range on a fee basis.

Forced Closure
Most outdoor police ranges are dedicated facilities, but not all. Down here in “paradise” (aka, southwest Florida), the local sheriff’s office built a shared indoor facility after the outdoor range was closed. A portion of the range is open to civilians on a fee basis.

Likewise, a range I visited out in New Mexico is also a shared facility. Owned by the city, civilians pay to shoot on a portion of the range whenever the place is open. Some department training is scheduled during off hours when the range is closed to the public. Their shoot house is dedicated “police-only” and was a double-walled setup constructed of railroad ties filled with sand. In New York, we had more baloney skins than creosote-soaked railroad ties, but it worked just fine for them and was used by a couple of smaller local agencies as well.

I’m not sure if this “Outdoor gun ranges under fire for safety” issue (as the headline read) is a trend or not, but the article noted that ranges in Idaho, Texas, Washington and California have either been closed or are under pressure to close due to stray rounds or environmental factors. One commentator estimated that there is about 10 tons of lead buried in the berms of one facility. In fact, even the Marines’ Miramar military base near San Diego closed down an outdoor range to the public because they thought that they couldn’t comply with state environmental laws.

Alternate Ranges
At my department, we were fortunate to have an indoor range, and my chief was generous to the surrounding agencies that weren’t so lucky. If the agency had certified firearms instructors, they could hold their training and qualifications at our facility at any time, day or night, that we weren’t using it. Smaller municipal agencies that didn’t have credentialed range trainers, including the local office of the N.Y. State Division of Parole and the Narcotics Bureau, used it under the tutelage of our instructors.

Nothing beats the versatility of an indoor range, especially for night-fire courses or “shoot, don’t shoot” judgment training. But most departments, if not all, occasionally still have the need to run out to the sticks for some “fun in the sun” or “pain in the rain” every year.

Unless your agency has a facility that rivals the FBI Academy’s multi-position indoor range at Quantico, or has unlimited funds to construct a facility—one that can handle curved amphitheater-type bullet traps, ceiling-mounted hologram projection screens that permit hits with live bullets, surround-sound wireless headphones that won’t inhibit movement to cover or tactical disengagement, an air-handling system that can circulate massive amounts of fresh air while removing contaminates from any forward position and is large enough to handle an electric-powered squad car—you have to come up with another strategy. You’re still going to need something with blue sky overhead, bermed on three sides, with grass or gravel underfoot to duplicate the streets or fields of your community so your troops get realistic and relevant firearms training.

Is there a solution? I’m not sure. Maybe a shared municipal facility is the answer. I was hired to do some training for Rochester, N.Y.-based LaserMax a while back. One of the classes was held in Colorado. Several agencies there banded together and jointly constructed an outdoor facility for use by their agencies, with a shorter pistol range on one side and a longer rifle range on the other. The shorter pistol range was even lighted for night fire. Other agencies also used it on a compensated fee basis.

It seems to work out west, but I’m not sure how much land is left east of the Mississippi for outdoor facilities. As I mentioned earlier, when the academy’s outdoor facility was closed piecemeal (the tire house first, followed by total range shut-down) we borrowed a small, four-lane portion of the local sportsman’s club outdoor range for our outdoor training. The downside was close-in shooting had to be restricted to off-hours for shooter safety reasons. When the facility was open for the member’s use, they had to shoot from covered firing positions at the 25-yard line. We needed to be closer, at three and seven yards, for some of our close-combat training. But we made it work.

Final Thoughts
For those of you who are still fortunate to have an outdoor range, and who might be worried about range safety from stray rounds, you may want to contact the NRA Law Enforcement Division or Shooting Range Services. They offer technical assistance for upgrading outdoor facilities to guard against stray rounds, strategies that go beyond higher berms. And if you’re concerned about a total shut down due to accusations of lead pollution, they’ve also offered legal advice to many shooting ranges and have even helped pass range protection laws in over 45 states.

Bottom line: You’d better start planning now.

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Dave Grossi is a retired Lieutenant from New York. Dave has served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics investigator, detective, sergeant, and lieutenant. Dave is an expert in nearly every force discipline and has testified as an expert witness in use of force cases in the United States and abroad.



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