Editorial: Finding a balance with firearms, target practice, shooting ranges and the public’s peace of mind

How safe is it shoot a firearm next to your neighbor’s house? What distance between homes, or what safety precautions should be taken, before it is appropriate to condone the practice? What common sense measures should be at the heart of this conversation, and what measures of mutual respect between those wanting to shoot their firearm and those concerned about noise and their peace of mind should be considered?
These questions were at the heart of the recent debate in Bristol, but also reverberate around the state as citizens struggle to find a reasonable balance between the right to discharge a firearm and the obvious concerns of safety, noise and disruption that can occur when those rights are abused.
In addition to the recent debate in Bristol, Whiting is pondering how to manage what town officials call an illegal commercial shooting range, and Ripton and Goshen officials are seeing gravel pits on national forest land used for shooting ranges that are unsafe, and remain littered with lead shell casings — a harmful impact on the environment that even the NRA encourages its members to avoid. And close calls have happened. Back in 2010, the Addison Independent reported an incident in which a Bridport resident was hit by a stray bullet while sitting on his porch by a man shooting at a target a half-mile away. The errant bullet pierced the flesh of the resident’s arm and smashed into his jaw, causing serious injury. Other county residents have reported bullets “whizzing by their heads” from people target practicing in an irresponsible manner.
What gun owners should want is action taken now before an accidental fatality causes a knee-jerk reaction that imposes restrictions that may be tougher than need be.
While the issue is fraught with concern, there’s reason to be optimistic.
For starters, most Vermonters embrace a hunting culture and respect, even admire, hunters who spend days and hours walking in the hills each fall for that winter’s supply of venison, or who spend early morning hours crouched in duck blinds, or for those willing to chase turkeys or bear or smaller game in a ritual that preserves a heritage tied deep to the state’s heart and soul. Sighting a firearm and target practice to hone one’s skills are inherent parts of that culture.
Vermont also has ample space to allow the discharge of firearms to be done safety. Our rural towns should be able to offer locations that accommodate commercial facilities, and abandoned gravel pits in the national and state forests (already used without sanction) that dominate much of the state could easily be modified to fit appropriate safety standards. And some towns, like Salisbury and Middlebury, already have ordinances that have established safety zones around homes for people to follow.
Still, there is an apparent lack of coordinated town, state or national forest directive. Lacking any, what we have is a wild-west free-for-all that is causing rifts in our communities and potentially posing safety hazards. To address that void, one solution is to form a legislative study committee to access the extent of the current problem (if the issue has recently surfaced in six towns in Addison County, there’s a good hunch it’s a problem elsewhere), establish safety parameters for shooting ranges (perhaps adopt the NRA’s if those guidelines make sense), and determine which governmental and law enforcement bodies have jurisdiction over shooting ranges (be that on town, state or federal land).
What is inexcusable is for a town, like Ripton, to have no control over conditions that could create safety hazards for its residents, yet have neither the state police nor national forest officials take responsibility (see story here). Sparks Pit is one abandoned gravel pit in Ripton that poses problems; a solution is simply to have the national forest adopt such recreation under its jurisdiction and put in place safety and environmental standards just as it does at campgrounds. Ripton, or other towns in similar positions, could then be given a voice in the matter, and perhaps the ability to monitor the sites for compliance.
It’s not a stretch to believe Vermont can adopt measures defining suitable conditions for target practice as well as commercial shooting ranges, while also respecting the appropriate considerations of those closest neighbors. In most cases, we just haven’t had to before. But times change and it’s clear it has become an issue that must be addressed soon, and the longer it is delayed the more problematic it becomes.
Angelo Lynn

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