New gun law victim: Sarasota County shooting range

Sep 29, 2011

The following article was published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on September 29, 2011:

New gun law victim:  Sarasota County shooting range

By Zac Anderson 

Florida lawmakers thought they were making life easier for gun enthusiasts when they cracked down on local firearm regulations this spring. But in an ironic twist, Sarasota County’s popular gun range may soon close as a result of the state law.

Knight Trail Park gun range is a public range in Nokomis. (Staff photo / Mike Lang)

The planned closure of the Knight Trail Park Pistol and Rifle Range Saturday — coinciding with when the new state law takes effect — would mean fewer legal opportunities for people to fire their weapons.

County leaders hope to reopen the gun range soon through a partnership with the state’s wildlife agency — perhaps even avoiding the closure altogether.

But in the meantime, local officials say they can’t risk personal liability and fines for gun range safety rules that could violate state law.

“We’re in a pickle,” said county Commissioner Jon Thaxton, a hunter and concealed weapons permit holder who said is concerned about closing an asset prized by local sportsmen.

The problem: Shooting ranges need safety rules, but the way county officials read the new state law, no local gun rules are allowed — not even safety regulations.

The driving force behind the new state law said Sarasota County is overreacting, and accused county offifcials of trying to make a political point.

“They need to read the law,” said National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who pushed for the legislation. “It is designed to stop local gun control. Having a gun range and having safety rules and business rules to operate a range, I would argue does not fall into this category.”

But county lawyers concluded that restrictions on municipally operated gun ranges are an “unintended consequence of the way the statute was written,” said Carolyn Brown, Sarasota County’s general manager for parks and recreation.

And with the state law allowing personal fines of up to $5,000 for each elected official who knowingly supports a local gun regulation, county leaders are not taking any chances.

A handful of municipal governments across Florida that operate shooting ranges at city and county parks could be in similar straits, although so far it appears that Sarasota County is the only government considering a range closure.

State lawmakers had a different intent when they passed legislation this year imposing the stiff penalties for local gun rules.

Bill Lowe of Englewood shoots at Knight Trail Park at least once a week. (Staff photo / Mike Lang)

Legislators wanted to stop city and county officials from hassling gun owners with too many restrictions. Local rules prohibiting firearms in campgrounds, shooting within city limits and nearly a dozen other gun regulations recently were repealed to comply with the new state law.

But closing one of just two local gun ranges is a much bigger hassle, gun owners say.

A dozen people had already gathered at the range Thursday for the 9 a.m. opening. Regulars greeted each other by name. Bullet casings began flying as the sound of gunfire broke the silence of the surrounding pine woods.

Venice retiree Robert Fiebert, 80, has been firing his target pistol at the facility for at least 25 years.

“It’s a great recreational asset,” he said. “Not everybody’s a golfer.”

The dilemma may be quickly resolved. County officials are working on a plan to have the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission technically oversee the shooting range.

The FWC already manages gun ranges elsewhere in Florida and, as a state agency, is not subject to the ban on local gun regulations.

Brown hopes to strike a deal with FWC in time to avoid closing the facility Saturday, but it may take longer to reach an agreement.

The range could be closed for weeks, a concern for sportsmen as hunting season approaches and they look to tune up firearms.

Local gun owners said the situation makes them appreciate the Knight Trail range, which many laud as one of the safest and well-run in Florida.

Roughly 20,000 people visit the 27-year-old public facility annually. On weekends more than 200 people have been known to line up for one of 70 shooting spots.

A few years ago when the county considered closing the range because entrance fees did not cover the operating costs, gun owners lobbied for a fee increase to keep it open.

“The shooters, without hesitation, said charge us,” Thaxton said. “Their dedication is evident by their willingness to step up and cover the cost.”

Find this article here: