Target shooting on public lands should be regulated


Recently, I participated in a spirited response sequence to an blog post  in HCN on yet another heated debate about motorized vs. non-motorized travel on public lands. The article's author, Marian Lyman Kirst, described non-motorized travel as "quiet" use, a handy, aggregate term that is widely used to describe activities such as hiking, bicycling, kayaking, and horseback riding. Unfortunately, these interest groups are often portrayed as diametrically opposed to any of the "loud" activities involving motors - ATV, jet-ski, and dirt-bike riding, for example.

Like Kirst, I confess my allegiance to the former group. If I'm out on public lands, I've got binoculars, reins, or oars in my hands. Still, I chafe at absolutes. I've had bad encounters with the "loud" crowd, true, but also friendly ones. Same goes with "quiet" folk. We all have some impact, and we all have to share the trails, so we might as well learn to put up with each other.

There is one "loud" group, however, that I confess I sometimes have a hard time with: target shooters. It's not that I'm anti-gun. My spouse is a Marine Corps vet, and many members of my family are gun owners. I also understand that shooting ranges can get crowded, and that an outdoor environment presents a more challenging scenario for practice. Those who go to areas traditionally used for target practice, shoot off some rounds in a safe manner, and then clean up after themselves have my grudging respect.


Problem is, those who don't are not only loud and annoying, they can be dangerous and destructive, and it isn't just me who has an issue with it. Here in Arizona, so many saguaros and other plants have been damaged by bullets in Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson that the BLM's new management plan recommends a ban of recreational shooting. In Utah last summer, wildfires near Utah Lake were blamed  on gunfire, and only this week , a target shooter in Texas has been charged with injuring two boys who were playing basketball outside a school near where he was practicing.

The National Rifle Association disputes  accounts of many of these incidents, because that's what they do. Their arguments usually involve accusations that a few random incidents are blown out of proportion, or that each closure or prosecution is part of a string of organized attempts to destroy responsible gun-owners' rights. One of the saddest comments I've heard recently from an NRA representative was in response  to the proposed ban in Ironwood Forest. Todd Rathner, an NRA lobbyist, was quoted in the Arizona Daily Star as saying, "the problem is that the environmentalists think that any human use of these areas is somehow a threat to the environment."

I understand "quiet" vs. "loud," even though it unfairly lumps together diverse bunches of recreationists. But "environmentalists" vs. "any human use" is really out of bounds, don't you think? Like it or not, some "human uses" have greater potential for harm than others. Target shooting is one of those uses, and those who argue for regulation should not be demonized as antagonistic to everyone else who likes the desert, shore, or woods. With that kind of logic, we'll never be able to get along.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.


Image courtesy the Bureau of Land Management and can be found on page I-18 of Appendix I of the Proposed Resource Management Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement for Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Lynne Gonzales
Lynne Gonzales
Jan 09, 2012 09:19 AM
One always has to remember the story (true or not) of the shooter who managed to put enough shots into the saguaro that it fell on him...saguaros are not just hollow, weightless chimeras!
Ben Long
Ben Long
Jan 09, 2012 03:43 PM
Good bog on a sensitive topic. Shooters, including NRA, need to realize it's in their best interest to police their own ranks. As a shooter, I've been disgusted by the trash left behind by my compatriots. And more than once I've gone home early because some beer-swilling jokers have shown up. These knuckledraggers would be kicked out of any gun club -- so they go to the national forests. It's a real problem and NRA needs to wise up.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Jan 11, 2012 11:55 PM
Jackie, thank you for this article focusing on irresponsible target shooters who use their firearms to destroy valuable native plants, like the Saguaro Cactuses in Arizona. That needs to stop!

Like your husband, I too am a former Marine. I'm also a committed environmentalist, an avid hunter, and a lifetime NRA member. I believe that firearms owners should always use their firearms safely and responsibly, whether in hunting, target shooting, or self defense.

The problem is that some firearms owners are irresponsible idiots. That's true of the fringe members of any population subgroup -- clergy, academicians and politicians included.

But the lack of available (safe, affordable and proximate) shooting ranges for people living in metro areas (where most people live) is also a factor in encouraging people to improvise, sometimes in inappropriate ways, when they do get out of the city and into the field.

This year, for example, we drove two long days from Minneapolis to hunt elk (successfully) in an Idaho wilderness area, camping in National Forests en route. Despite driving over 1,300 miles one-way through rural Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, we searched long and hard (in advance, by computer and phone) to find an accessible shooting range anywhere near where we planned to travel each day or to camp each evening, so that we could carefully double check our rifle sights and practice our pistol shooting. I even joined the Dillon, Montana shooting club, located about 1,000 miles from my home, to ensure our one-time access upon our evening arrival in SW Montana. (We found a live rattlesnake on the firing line, but it's a fine range.) Yes, it is generally legal to trespass onto and shoot within public forests and BLM controlled prairie lands, of which there is plenty for anyone with good land management maps. But hunters need better-built shooting facilities to check the performance of their firearms, scopes and cartridges, especially when deprived of good shooting range access throughout the remainder of the year.

Firearms owners have since the 1930's or so paid a 10% tax on their firearms and ammunition (via the Pittman-Robertson tax) that has collected billions of dollars annually. That revenue is distributed back to the states for use in habitat restoration and shooting-related development. Very little of that money is used to provide shooting ranges with firearms training and practice opportunities accessible to people living in metropolitan areas. Much more of it should be used in that manner. It would enhance public safety, while helping to reduce irresponsible gun usage in both urban and rural areas.

Thank you again for this article. I hope you give this response fair evaluation. Meanwhile, Semper Fi to your hubby, and hoorah to all our fellow military veterans, many of whom are highly-trained and responsible shooting enthusiasts. We are happy to do our share to make America a safer society with a healthier natural environment, as well.
melitta smith
melitta smith
Jan 12, 2012 02:41 PM
Unfortunately, one does not have to have a reasonable argument to comment on any subject in open and also closed forums. It would be nice to have a place to reasonably argue the true facts of issues but this is part of what makes the U.S A. the U.S.A.
G. Johnson
G. Johnson
Jan 31, 2012 02:34 PM
Your link to the Texas target shooter is broken
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Jan 31, 2012 03:16 PM
Thanks for that note -- I fixed the broken link. --Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.