Makeshift Gun Ranges Draw Fire; Call For Safer Shooting Spaces Grows

This article originally appeared in The Addison Independent on Aug. 17, 2017.

BY WILL DIGRAVIO

ADDISON COUNTY — The sound of gunfire way off in the woods is not unfamiliar to folks who enjoy trekking through the forests of Addison County. For Bill Mathis, who lives adjacent to a gravel pit turned shooting range in Goshen, that distant salvo has turned into bullets flying past as he sits on his porch.

“It’s (happened) probably four or five times,” Mathis said. “It is a bit disconcerting to have bullets whiz over your head.”

Another informal shooting range can be found in Ripton, in a sand pit named Sparks Pit, near the home of Chris Pike, who says the range poses a safety hazard and does not meet National Rifle Association (NRA) standards.

“If you look at the trees over the berm, they’re riddled with holes, and all of those bullets are going out towards (a nearby) campsite and house,” Pike said.

Informal, unregulated shooting ranges like these exist around Addison County, and increasingly draw attention from those who say safe, well-regulated alternatives are needed.

Cases in Lincoln, Bristol and Whiting in particular have been in the spotlight.

This past winter, Green Mountain National Forest and Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department officials held a meeting to discuss turning an informal shooting range in a Lincoln gravel pit into a properly designed range.

“The National Forest would provide the land and the state would get it built and managed,” Pike said. “The residents near the range said no and it was dropped.”

Shooting near homes in Bristol last spring prompted the town’s selectboard to consider a local ordinance regulating discharging firearms within a specific distance of other people’s property. On Aug. 10, the Bristol selectboard unanimously rejected the proposed gun ordinance.

In Whiting, an individual allegedly operated an illegal, commercial gun range on his property that, according to town officials, poses a safety hazard and nuisance to his neighbors. The range does not meet NRA safety standards because it lacks a range designer and uses only the natural topography. The owner says the range is safe and non-commercial, and appealed the zoning administrator’s decision to the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. The board will hold their third hearing regarding the range this Friday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. in the Whiting Town Hall.

One of the challenges local officials and residents have faced in addressing gun-related issues is a lack of safety laws, as well as ambiguity when it comes to jurisdiction.

“We’ve told the National Forest and the state police, and both of them point very directly at the other one,” said Mathis, the Goshen resident.

In Bristol, the state police said they could not intervene in gun incidents because the town did not have an ordinance in place.

In assessing the safety of the gun range in Whiting, Zoning Administrator Katharine Briggs was referred to the NRA by government agencies because the state lacks their own standards.

“Everyone defers to the NRA because they have standards, the state does not,” Briggs said. “The NRA range guidebook is the gold standard. Every agency with whom I spoke referred me to their range handbook — ATF, the range manager at Ethan Allen (a federal facility used by the Vermont National Guard), the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, the regional director for Act 250…”

So when Briggs cited the Whiting gun range owner for zoning violations, she referred to the NRA guidebook. The ZBA will decide how much weight it carries in Whiting.

FEDERAL LAND, LOCAL CONCERNS

In Ripton and Goshen, the challenge local officials face is a lack of jurisdiction; the ranges are located on federal land, leaving selectboards with no authority to address safety concerns.

“We have zero authority, even though it’s two-thirds of Ripton — 22,000 acres,” said Ripton Selectman Perry Hanson.

The pit turned range in Ripton is located at the end of the Natural Turnpike, down access road 59B in the Green Mountain National Forest. Pike said people shoot at the range daily, and have been doing so for decades, leaving a slew of beer bottles, shotgun shells, and target debris in their wake.

“I was shocked by the mess. It was just horrible. It was so disgusting. I was so surprised, I felt stupid. I hadn’t been there in years and the whole scene changed,” Hanson said. “It’s a very aggravating and frustrating situation, where you have folks that don’t seem to care, and it’s not clear who these folks are.” 

The Ripton gun range has attracted shooters from around the northeastern U.S. In posts made on internet gun forums, some as early as 2006, gun enthusiasts have called Sparks Pit one of the best places to shoot in western Vermont. In addition to the dangers the range poses to folks who live and hike in the area, Pike and his neighbors are concerned the decades worth of bullets may pose an ecological threat. 

“The NRA says lead should be cleaned from a shooting range every one to five years even with minimal usage,” Pike wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to John Sinclair, the forest’s supervisor. “The National Forest has never indicated that a safety evaluation, lead soil test or cleanup have ever been done.”

Sinclair responded to Pike on Aug. 10 and emphasized the need “to balance the increased demand for recreational shooting with protecting natural resources, social experiences, public safety and neighboring landowners.”

“These areas are not shooting ranges, formal or informal; rather these locations are user selected areas of the National Forest that contain natural features that are generally conducive to recreational shooting,” Sinclair said. “While particular locations of the National Forest receive higher recreational use, and some Forest recreational users may exhibit inappropriate behavior and possibly conduct unlawful actions, i.e. littering, in conjunction with their primary purpose for using the Forest, in this case the primary purpose, recreational shooting, is a lawful and appropriate use of our National Forest.”

However, Hanson and other Ripton officials say the range violates “just about every tenet” the U.S. Forest Service outlines on its website. In an Aug. 14 letter the selectboard sent to Chris Mattrick, the district ranger in charge of the Rochester and Middlebury districts of the Green Mountain National Forest, they cite a paragraph on the U.S. Forest Service website that says “target shooting is allowed only in designated areas of a national forest or grassland.” According to Hanson, Sparks Pit is not a designated area.

Other violations outlined in the letter include a lack of approved targets and backstops, unsafe gun handling, the possession of alcoholic beverages, and shooting in a manner that may injure those in the surrounding area.

Mattrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“If we do understand the rules/laws that govern shooting, we would be grateful if you would post Sparks Pit immediately to prohibit shooting there and to block access to Sparks Pit to all but pedestrian traffic,” ends the letter, signed by all three members of the town’s selectboard.

The letter was also sent to members of Vermont’s congressional and state legislative delegations, including State Rep. Peter Conlon, who represents Goshen and Ripton. They have caught the Cornwall Democrat’s ear.

“This just recently hit my radar. In the coming weeks I hope to meet with property owners, GMNF officials and others to look for a solution,” Colon told the Independent. “It seems everyone wants to ensure safety and open access to the national forest.”

Both Pike and Hanson said their problem is only with unsafe shooting. A gun owner himself, Pike said he does not want to prevent folks from shooting in the pit altogether, he just wants the area to be modified to meet NRA standards, like the range Mattrick proposed in Lincoln.

Given the host of recent gun safety issues throughout the area, Pike said a safe, well-designed gun range is something Addison County needs.

“We’re trying to make sure that there’s a safe place for guys to shoot,” Pike said.

Mathis agreed.

“I certainly don’t have a problem turning (pits) into NRA-type ranges where you can hopefully control the direction where people are shooting,” he said.

“The Air Force gave me a ribbon for being a crack shot with a navy revolver,” he added with a chuckle.