Shooting at hikers is perfectly legal


My family and I almost became collateral damage at the end of a pleasant hike through Colorado's Roosevelt National Forest. We were walking on a trail north of the small town of Lyons, when bullets suddenly peppered the trees behind our backs. My 8-year-old son, in tears, flattened himself into the dirt, and though my wife screamed "hikers! hikers!" at the shooters, the bullets kept coming. But here's the real shock: While the shooters were undoubtedly careless and stupid, it was legal for them to fire their guns in our direction.

That should change. I think it is past time for the Forest Service to toughen up its shooting laws.

The Forest Service knows it has a problem. The recreational needs of a growing, active population in the New West are running smack into the freedoms of the past. The problem is particularly bad in Forest Service lands abutting urban areas such as Boulder, the city nearest to this incident. The area around Boulder is laced with foot and bike paths; climbers hang from cliffs; fishermen line streams; and every government jurisdiction has limits on shooting, except one — the Forest Service.

Complaints about shooting are by far the most common in the Boulder District, says James Bedwell, Roosevelt-Arapaho National Forest supervisor. He adds that patrols and sign maintenance are "sporadic at best" because of dwindling resources.

The Boulder Ranger District has one overwhelmed ranger for more than 160,000 acres, and this staffer has the tall task of ensuring the safety of the 1.2 million people who visit the district annually. Federal officials say the Roosevelt-Arapaho National Forest, which includes Boulder, is one of the nation's busiest national forests.

On the afternoon of our near-shooting, it wasn't until the bullets began whistling by our heads that we discovered where they were coming from: The trailhead. I'd hit the dirt with my son, but then got up, ducked low, and ran up a hill to the trailhead. There, I saw three groups firing away down the ridge: the two men who almost killed us, a man and two boys blasting at cans and a half-dozen men dressed entirely in black, wearing capes and firing automatic weapons blindly into the woods.

The shooters who almost got us were firing at targets they'd nailed to trees in a grove above the trail. Any bullet that missed the targets and trees could have hit hikers like us. The gunmen had an excuse — of sorts. Over the years, signs identifying the trail and warning against shooting had been riddled with bullets and ripped down.

I got the license number of the men who shot at us and reported it to the Boulder County sheriff's office. But the deputy I talked to said shooting is legal in a national forest and common in the area. Forest Service officials backed him up; it is even legal to fire into a hiking trail as long as it is unoccupied at the time.

Shooting is traditional on Forest Service lands and a "hot-button item," says Christine Walsh, Boulder District ranger. It is a use that rangers are not about to quickly change. A few Forest Service areas near major cities have small area-specific restrictions, but there are no national limits. The Boulder District is beginning a review that could lead to some limitations, but it will take at least two years. Meanwhile, the system favoring shooting remains.

Nearly as galling as the fact that my family could have gotten legally shot on a hike is the stupidity of these riflemen. I grew up with guns and recall a family photo of me at 8 years old, blasting away with my father's handgun, along with my 5-year-old sister, in a cute little dress, firing a .22 rifle. We were at a rugged hunters' range outside a California desert town where we lived. But we could clearly see where our bullets went — unlike the guys who nearly shot us.

Inside the Boulder District, there is one well-known though unofficial target range, a few miles north of Boulder. Shooters have lugged in refrigerators, computer monitors, and TVs for targets, and this misuse of public land has gone on for 20 years, rangers say. That's long enough for a cleanup program to have sprung up, not run by shooters but by others offended by the waste. Last year, two dumpsters full of shot-up trash were picked up.

Unless the Forest Service toughens its national regulations, shooting will continue pretty much at will on our publicly owned land. I guess people will have to trust to luck to avoid injury or death at the end of a sunny afternoon hike.

Jeff Johnson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He lives in Boulder and is a Ted Scripps fellow at the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Jun 10, 2006 04:38 PM

Hi Jeff, I would suggest that you pursue civil litigation against these shooters. Under Colorado intentional infliction of emotional distress law, it is possible that you could win a settlement and provide some incentive for these types of individuals to think twice before acting so irresponsibly. Indeed, according to land use, they are allowed to shoot there, but it was reasonably foreseeable that they would hit or inflict serious fear in any hikers that were using the trail. Put these punks in their place before anybody gets serious bodily injuries please. I suggest you seek legal advice on this. Thank you, CWF

Jun 12, 2006 10:28 PM

You and your family were assaulted with deadly weapons, Surely that is criminal conduct in any jurisdiction.

Jun 16, 2006 01:13 AM

Irresponsible shooting occurs year-round in the Gallatin National Forest around Bozeman, as well. I've witnessed guys target shooting hand guns in a picnic area at the mouth of Hyalite Canyon, Montana's most heavily used national forest recreation area. When I complained to the Forest Service, the district ranger merely reminded me that shooting is legal on the forest. The potential for a tragedy is very real. Meanwhile, rangers haul out tons of shooters' trash, not to mention perforated vehicles and goverment property every spring. Brian Maffly

Shooting in national forests
Andrew Bennett
Andrew Bennett
Dec 07, 2008 09:02 AM
In regards to being shot at in a national forest, I find no excuse for the man that fired in your direction....I do however feel that our rights should not be infringed on because someone is careless.

I believe that all who wish to venture out and fire their weapons should have this right, but should be required to pass a shooter safety class, and also be held responsible for their actions.

I realize that it must have been scary to find yourself and family members under fire, but you must also take the appropriate care when you venture out into a national forest.

I would suggest a national park, but if you have your mind set on exploring these national forests, also keep in mind that it could be the time of year when you might encounter hunters, so always remember to wear bright colors...such as orange:)
in reply to above
bob z
bob z
Jan 30, 2009 09:29 AM
I understand this posting is well after the fact, but it should be posted just to help out future readers.
If anyone encounters this, it is against the law. You must be 150 yards from any trail to target shoot, and are not allowed to shoot over trails, water, or 150 yards from houses etc.....

You should contact the Colorado Department of Wildlife immediately. They have a lot of influence over park officials, and can take it above and beyond.
Don't let a few bad apples spoil it for those who shoot and hunt safely, and teach their children and friends to shoot and hunt safely as well.
Of course this could just be a ploy by some anti-hunter/shooter trying to change the law by making up events. Sorry, but those people exist too.
In reply to above
Jan 31, 2009 11:09 AM
I agree. People like that give all gun owners a bad name. I am a Life Member of the NRA and own several firearms. I usually shoot at the range, but I have been shooting in the mountains as well. One of the most basic safety rules of shooting is to know exactly what is behind your target, so you know where the bullet will end up after you fire. There is no excuse for what those shooters did. I am in full support of our second amendment rights for law abiding citizens as the NRA always says. However, if somebody wants to be reckless, stupid, or criminal then that person deserves to have that right taken away. I have enjoyed the sport of shooting my whole life and have never done anything even close to what they did. If bullets had been flying over my wife and daughter's heads, angry wouldn't begin to describe how I would have felt. Please shooters, be respectful, be careful, and be professional about the sport and tradition we all love.
I agree with Ryan 100%
Aug 14, 2009 10:48 AM
Thanks for your post! It's always the few bad apples that spoil it for the multitudes of responsible citizens. I agree with the others that the author should also persue litigation against the violators. That said, don't punish those of us 2A supports who did nothing wrong and also condem such reckless and UNlawful acts.
Not quite accurate
Oct 13, 2010 09:22 AM
I've seen no laws against firing near or at hiking trails. I have my big game hunting brochure and there are only laws pertaining to firing on or over roads. You must be at least 50 feet from the centerline of the road. I don't know where you got your information from but there are no laws against firing near or over hiking trails nor is there any kind of language in state statutes that mention needing to be 150 yards away from a road or trail. Its 50 feet and only applies to public roads.

At the same time, shooters need to be responsible. You should always no what is behind your intended target area and have a decent backstop. I've been shooting in the mountains before but only do so "away" from hiking trails or roads and only when there is a good backstop. I think its pretty dumb to shoot towards or over a hiking area. You should know the area and shoot "away" from hiking areas.
It's ILlegal to shoot at people
Aug 14, 2009 10:42 AM
Contrary to the sensational headlines:

The Code of Federal Regulations (title 36) states that discharging a firearm or any other implement capable of taking human life, causing injury or damaging property is prohibited:

In or within 150 yards of a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation site or occupied area; or
Across or on a Forest Development Road or adjacent body of water; or
In any manner or place where any person or property is exposed to injury or damage as a result of such discharge.

In other words, shooters must be at least 150 yards away from campgrounds, trailheads or any area already being used by other recreationists. This gives shooters a safety margin and prevents conflicts with other forest users. Do not damage property, including trees, telephone poles or signs. Any violations will result in a fine and/or court appearance.

Source: CFR 26 and[…]/shootingregulations.shtml
Shooting at hikers is perfectly Legal
Ron Bowman
Ron Bowman
Dec 02, 2009 11:56 PM
First, I would like to say that I moved my young family out here 30 years ago to enjoy the National Forest. I have hiked and camped extensively throughout Colorado. I have climbed over 30 of the Colorado's 14'ers. I also shoot recreationaly on US Forest Service Land. I believe the National Forest is one of our greatest treasures and I hope that we all act to preserve this land for all in the present and future.

When I read a commentary such as "Shooting at hikers is perfectly legal" by Jeff Johnson, I could only think of total ignorance held by this writer. I'm not writing my commentary to minimize or authenticate his experience, since I did not stand shoulder to shoulder with him during this experience, but I will address his writing of his experience.

"Shooting at hikers is perfectly legal" by Jeff Johnson as published by High Country News out of Paonia, Colorado...cannot be further from the truth. Let me recite Federal Regulations:
Hunters must have the appropriate license issued by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The Code of Federal Regulations (title 36) states that discharging a firearm or any implement of taking human life, causing injury or damaging property is prohihibited:
1. In or within 150 yards of a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation site or occuppied area; or
2. Across or on a Forest Development Road or adjacent body of water; or
3. Discharging a firearm into a cave or mine.

Additional to Federal Law on public land, each individual county can enforce county laws on such lands. To date, no county in Colorado has allowed open shooting of hikers within its boarders.

In conclusion...I believe parts of Jeff Johnson's story may have been real but most parts were amplified for his story. Since 2007 the U.S. Department of Agriculture has studied the expansion of shooting ranges within Boulder County, Colorado. In all studies, Boulder County has held a "not in my back yard policy."

If Jeff Johnson's cause held any legal merit, I would imagine County Sheriff's reports will exists for the examination of all sides.

Think Fully,

Collateral damage
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Dec 04, 2009 09:02 AM
Jeff, the same thing happened to me some years ago on the Roaring Creek trail in Poudre Canyon (outside Fort Collins CO). We were less than 1/4 mile from the trailhead when we heard gunfire and whining bullets. Like your wife, we immediately yelled out but the firing continued. We crouched behind trees for cover and kept yelling as we returned to the trailhead, where we found a young boy, accompanied by an adult male, firing his gun uphill directly toward the trail. We told the man that the boy was endangering people. His response? "It's his gun, I don't have any control over where he fires." My jaw dropped in astonishment. An adult telling me that he took absolutely no responsibility for the actions of what looked like a 10 year old???? I called the Forest Service and reported their license number, and they said they'd talk to the guy. UNBELIEVABLE!
These shooters are the problem, not shooting...
Eric Kiefer
Eric Kiefer
Jul 17, 2010 01:50 PM
These guys were clearly uneducated about firearm safety and that is a real shame. Jackasses like this give all gun owners a bad name and could potentially cause a loss of responsible shooters' rights or much much worse, someone's life. The sad fact is that if regulations are put in place to limit shooting in the national forest, then only responsible shooters will stop shooting. The drunken morons will continue to shoot at random non targets. It is very important to report these people and get them the education they sorely need.
Better enforcement needed
Jul 17, 2010 11:16 PM
It seems to me that better enforcement of existing laws could solve many issues like this, with no need for additional laws. If somebody were to point a gun at you in downtown Denver I am fairly confident they would be quickly arrested and charged with Aggravated Assault. Now I sympathize with the lack of manpower needed to patrol these areas, but if a crime like this is reported it should be taken very seriously.
shooting laws
Jul 20, 2010 11:13 PM
While it is legal to shoot firearms in national forests in Colorado, it is also a law that you must shoot into an embankment. If you are shooting into open forests you can be fined, taken to jail and have your firearms taken. Any responsible gun owner knows not to shoot into open trees.
thats a scary story. now, did it really happen that way?
Jul 21, 2010 12:25 PM
i doubt it happened the way you say or any decent sheriff would no doubt have followed up on it. while shooting on public land is allowed, there is a host of rules regulating it and per your story these individuals broke just about all of them.

unfortunately, there are always those of us who wants public land to be for them and them only, and subsequently want to ban every sport they do not practice personally, be it climbing, shooting, 4-wheeling or what not.
shooting at hikers
Jan 09, 2011 11:18 AM
First off, your headline appears to be deliberately inflammable. You and your family were not endangered by shooting, you were endangered by stupidity and carelessness, the same type of carelessness and stupidity that gets people killed every day on roads, by cars, by careless and intoxicated drivers. Secondly, the enforcement personnel were incorrect in their response as to the regulations and you need to contact their supervisor or the Forest Service enforcement branch and register a complaint with them. Thirdly, you should contact the local sheriff's office and file a police report and criminal complaint with them. Your interaction with the responding enforcement officer should have been a great deal more forceful and pointed, such as asking him what he does when someone does get shot in such a situation. You can bet he or she knew the rules, they just did not want to do their job.

The people doing the shooting are idiots. Anyone shooting into an area where they cannot control where the bullets end up does not deserve to own a firearm.
Tom Johnston
Tom Johnston
Feb 04, 2014 08:20 PM
This is pure nonsense. It's spreading misinformation in an obvious anti-gun bias. The National Forest rules about shooting are perfectly clear and the person who wrote this article clearly didn't even bother to check his facts by simply going to the National Forest website and reviewing the rules. Those rules include requirments that shooters cannot shoot in a direction or in any way that could jeopardize others, that there must be a safe backstop, and that shooting cannot take place within specified distances from roads, trails, buildings, etc. The author of this article has no credibility. If what he claims actually did happen, the shooters broke several very clear spelled out rules.

Get your facts straight before you spread such nonsense. I suspect that you are greatly exaggerating what actually happened. If not, the shooters could have been and should have been arrested.

I have no patience when people spread misinformation in an effort to push their own personal agendas and you are clearlying doing that. The sad thing is that nobody bothered to check your facts.

Before you get on my case, just go to the National Forest website and read the rules for shooting in National Forests. It is uniform throughout the U.S.
Tom Johnston
Tom Johnston
Feb 04, 2014 08:27 PM
Here are the basic rules taken right from the N.F. site. There are more.

"1. You are at least 150 yards from a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation area or occupied area.

2. You are not shooting across or on a National Forest System Road or adjacent body of water.

3. You are not shooting in any manner or place where any person or property is exposed to injury or damage as a result of such discharge.

4. You are not firing any tracer bullet or incendiary ammunition.

The bottom line is that the author of this article is a bald-faced liar. The title of the article is a pure lie. Anyone who doesn't believe should simply go to the National Forest site or do a search for "target shooting in National Forests."


Tom Johnston
Tom Johnston
Feb 04, 2014 08:30 PM
By the way, I think the author of this article owes readers an apology. The facts clearly show that he was lying. It amazes me even more that nobody bothers to fact-check his claims.