Target shooting on public lands: still an issue


So another year has arrived, and yet again we’re mired in a nationwide debate about the role of guns in American society. Let me note right away that this blog post is about guns and public lands, not guns in general. However, some context is in order, and, I think, relevant. As usual, a terrible tragedy has reawakened the controversy, and in addition to the normal, polarized arguments being rehashed, some folks are trying desperately to capture the middle ground before public interest subsides back to its preoccupation with football and the Kardashians. Most recently, former Arizona congresswoman  Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly argued for reform in a widely published op-ed, while also trying to push aside one of the main stereotypes: “Forget the boogeyman of big, bad government coming to dispossess you of your firearms. As a Western woman and a Persian Gulf War combat veteran who have exercised our Second Amendment rights, we don't want to take away your guns any more than we want to give up the two guns we have locked in a safe at home.”

It is difficult to diagnose the status of a controversy while in the middle of it, though nearly every pundit and blogger has tried to do so. I won’t attempt to speculate about whether the voices of moderation and compromise will gain the high ground over those of extremism. However, to date the focus has been on mass murder and rightly so, as this is the most despicable consequence of reckless gun use. But I respectfully submit that there are other serious consequences needing attention, including to the environment. One year ago this week, I presented my views on target shooting on public lands here in HCN. Like all issues involving guns, this one is complex, with no simple “pro” or “con” argument that can adequately capture the scope of this complexity. Those who commented on the post and I both agree that public lands target shooting has a legitimate place among other uses of those lands. This is an important middle ground.

However, its impact can be greater than that of other activities, especially when large numbers of recreational shooters descend on an area and some engage in dangerous and destructive practices, such as shooting wildlife, plantsartifacts, or starting fires.  Here in Arizona last summer, an 18,000 acre fire in the Tonto National Forest was started by Steven Shiflet, who fired an incendiary Fiocchi 12 gauge shotgun shell into some brush while target shooting with friends. Shiflet pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month, but he will not be the only one punished for this crime. A popular riparian area beloved by generations of hikers, birdwatchers, ATVers, campers, and hunters, the affected section of Sycamore Creek is now ruined for generations to come, its wildlife killed or displaced and its hillsides subject to erosion and flash floods.

There is a clear parallel with the national debate here. As a society, we need to ask whether after-the-fact prosecutions are a sufficient response to such comprehensive destruction, just as we need to ask the same but more pressing question about the carnage wreaked by mass murders. Another echo:  Is there a legitimate civilian need for incendiary shot? On the other hand, can criminalizing or restricting it effectively limit stupid behavior like Shiflet’s? However we attempt to resolve that question, can we agree that the incidents at Tucson, Aurora, and Newton ultimately hurt us all, and that target shooting-related fires and other destruction last year in Arizona, Utah, and elsewhere effectively take the “public” out of public lands?

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

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

Image of a shot-up saguaro courtesy Flickr user Rex Bennett.

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