Bill targets shooting range noise complaints

Such businesses would be protected from nuisance lawsuits

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 

Gun rights advocates, law enforcement groups and some residents near shooting ranges are keeping close watch on a bill to protect existing sport shooting ranges from noise complaints.

The bill before state lawmakers would prevent residents near shooting ranges such as the Vancouver Trap and Gun Club and the English Pit Shooting Range from filing nuisance lawsuits against the ranges. Residents would still be able to file suit if they allege the ranges’ practices are negligent or dangerous, or if there had been a substantial change in how the range was used since the resident moved in.

“We’ll have gun ranges that are out in a rural area and the next thing you know, they’re building houses around them and people start complaining about the noise,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said. “And the next thing you know, there’s ordinances that are passed that chase (gun ranges) off.”

When shooting ranges become more scarce, more people tend to go out into the woods to practice recreational shooting, Takko said. They’ll find a secluded area, tack a target or piece of cardboard onto a tree and start shooting without necessarily knowing if other people are around. And the lead-laced bullets left behind can harm the environment.

Takko’s proposal, House Bill 1508, also would prohibit local governments from regulating the construction or location of existing gun ranges. Sport shooting ranges would only have to comply with the noise rules that existed when the range first opened, or rules established in 1980 if the range is older.

Local governments could regulate the construction or location of future shooting ranges.

Recent court case

The legislation, which is co-sponsored by state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, proved controversial during a recent public hearing, especially because of a dispute in Kitsap County between a gun range and its nearby residents.

A Superior Court judge from Pierce County this month ordered the Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club to shut down, ruling it was a nuisance to the public and that it failed to adequately prevent bullets from traveling past the range’s borders. The club is prohibited from using the property as a shooting range until it can be brought up to code under current county regulations.

Takko said during a House debate about the bill on Feb. 13 that his legislation would not prevent residents from suing a gun range for being negligent.

Still, he was met with resistance from state Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. Appleton said the bill was not fair to residents living by a shooting range.“I don’t think we should ever take away a person’s right to sue,” Appleton said.

State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the bill is a reasonable measure.

“Do I have the right to sue because I can hear the train go by at 3 o’clock in the morning?” Orcutt said. “I made a conscious choice to purchase property there. So it’s up to me to accept the conditions I bought into.”

The bill passed out of the House with a vote of 93-5, and it hadn’t been scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate as of Thursday. It has one more day to move out of the Senate Judiciary Committee before the next bill cutoff deadline.

During the public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, law enforcement officials testified in support of the bill and said some of them rely heavily on sport shooting ranges for firearms training. Representatives of commercial shooting ranges asked lawmakers to include them in the bill, too.

Locals weigh in

Some residents in neighborhoods across from the English Pit Shooting Range in east Vancouver said the firearm sounds they hear on nearly a daily basis are annoying, but not obnoxious enough to get them to take action against the range. Other residents in that area said they’ve learned to ignore the noise and that it isn’t any louder than the tractor-trailers that drive past their homes.

“It’s not really a nuisance,” said Gail Smith, who has lived in her home near the shooting range for about five years. She and her husband, Geoff Smith, said they only hear gun noise from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and they realize the shooting range is often used to train police officers.

Down the street, residents Gretchen and Michael Chriss said they wish the area was more quiet, but they knew the gun range was there when they bought their home more than a year ago.

Michael Chriss said he’d like it if the range moved farther away or if an indoor range with soundproof walls was built in its place. The English Pit Shooting range allows high-powered guns.

“Things change,” he said. “This area has gotten much more residential.”

Farther west in the Orchards area, Vancouver Trap and Gun Club President Doug Dinsmore said his range and its neighbors have learned to co-exist. The range features soil berms to muffle gun sounds and increase safety. The shotgun-only range has been there since the 1940s. Only occasionally does the club allow shooting that lasts until 9:30 p.m., Dinsmore said.

“We make an effort not to irritate the neighbors,” Dinsmore said. “We won’t shoot before 10 in the morning or after 10 at night.”

Today’s law

Under current rules, sport shooting ranges are already exempt between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. from noise limits outlined in the state’s Noise Control Act. But residents near shooting ranges could still sue the range for nuisance, arguing that the range creates a “substantial and unreasonable interference with another individual’s use and enjoyment of his or her land,” according to bill information provided by the Legislature.

The fact that the property owner decided to live near the nuisance wouldn’t necessarily protect the gun range from such lawsuits. If a gun range was to lose a nuisance lawsuit, the court could impose fines on the range or file an injunction to stop the gun range from operating.

National Rifle Association lobbyist Brian Judy told the House Transportation Committee that Washington and Hawaii are the only two states that do not have the same types of protections Takko’s bill would provide.

“If you like firearms, you should support this bill,” Judy said. “If you don’t like firearms, you really should support this bill. If we don’t have safe, organized, formal places to shoot, then shooters are going to disperse and you’re going to have indiscriminate shooting everywhere.”

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics