Proactive Shooting Range Protection

A helpful person (thanks Jean) recently suggested putting some information here about what shooting range operators can do proactively to protect their Montana shooting range from problems, especially the problem of population encroachment and subsequent conflicts.  We will discuss that and some other related issues.

The first and most important advice is, own the land your range uses.  There have been a number of shooting ranges closed or severely troubled in recent memory because the range operators did not own their land.  In Ravalli County, trap shooters had been using a range located on the airport for a long time.  Then, the County decided that it had other use for the land, and asked the trap club to move out.  In Cascade County, Great Falls area shooters had enjoyed for decades a range on property belonging to the Montana Power Company.  Then, MPC decided it had other use for its property, and announced that the Great Falls shooting club would no longer be allowed to maintain the range there.  In Seeley Lake and Columbia Falls, range operators leasing state lands have seen their lease price rise so fast and dramatically that they are being put out of business - they cannot afford to maintain their leases.  In Glendive, a local range located on the grounds of the Makoshika State Park is being threatened with closure because it is seen as an incompatible use, even though the range location was used long before there was a state park in that location.  Own the land your range uses.

The Shooting Range Protection Act (SRPA) only applies to your range if you own the land.  If somebody else owns the land, that somebody else has property rights and control, and the SRPA doesn't protect your range.

If you own the land your range is on, the SRPA protects you from noise complaints, state regulation for deposition of lead and copper, closure from zoning or from an unfriendly Comprehensive Plan.  It does not protect your range operation from proven safety defects.  More about safety defects later.  Under the SRPA, a governmental unit can force the closure of a range if a documented "pressing public need" exists, and if the governmental unit pays for the full, appraised value of the range, including property and all improvements.

About safety defects, a governmental unit (or court) can order the closure of a range if proven safety defects exist, but the range must first be given formal notice of the safety defects and a reasonable opportunity to cure any proven safety defects.

Population Encroachment.  The most common problem shooting ranges face is the buildup of residential properties near the range.  People who move in are sometimes surprised to find themselves living near a shooting range and begin to complain.  To some extent, this can be addressed proactively.

Become acquainted with the owners of any property adjacent to or near your range property.  If they have any concerns or complaints, take those seriously.  They may have a genuine complaint, or a perceived problem.  In either case, you should be talking to them about whatever their issues may be.  Invite neighboring property owners to tour your range.  Show them your safety features.  Talk to them about your range rules.  If you develop a relationship with your neighbors, they will give you early warning if any issues arise that might cause problems for your range.

Keep your eyes and ears open for any possible subdivisions within a mile or two of your range.  If there are any subdivisions being proposed near your range, they will probably need to go through a public hearing before your county Planning Board.  GO TO THE HEARING!  Inform the Planning Board or County Commissioners about the presence of your range.  Announce your intention to operate a shooting range in this location forever.  Invite the developers to respond at the hearing if they have any problem with their proposed subdivision being near a shooting range.  Get this all into the public record - full disclosure.  Put all of this in writing to the Planning Board as well.  When a major subdivision was planned near the Deer Creek Shooting Center of Missoula, the range owner Western Montana Fish and Game Association prepared a letter to the Planning Board, and both delivered the letter at the public hearing on the subdivision and read the text into the public record.  The text of this letter is HERE.

If a subdivision is approved near your range, there will probably be one local real estate agency which obtains an exclusive on selling lots in the subdivision.  Talk to that realtor.  Make sure all of the real estate agents working for that realtor have all information about your range, especially about how new neighbors in the subdivision can join your organization and use your range.  Try to get the realtors to pitch your range as an attraction in the neighborhood, both to pick up new and nearby members and to put all would-be residents on notice that they are moving in next to a shooting range.  Also, see if the realtors will hand out literature about your range to prospective subdivision lot buyers.  Communicate with the homeowner's association connected with the subdivision, if there is one.

Safety issues.  Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a resident living about 1/2 mile from the Montana Law Enforcement Academy range in Bozeman found a bullet when cleaning out the rain gutter of his house.  He wrote a letter to then Attorney General Mike Greeley, claiming that the bullet had come from the Academy range, asserting that the presence of the range presented a clear and present danger to himself and his family members, and demanding that the range be closed.  Mike Greeley ordered the range closed immediately.  The Attorney General had the authority to do this because the Academy is part of the Montana Department of Justice, which is administered by the Attorney General.  However, it was never demonstrated that the homeowner actually did find a bullet in his rain gutter, or that, if it existed, the bullet came from the Academy range.  The proof needed for closure would have been more difficult for a civilian range.  Still, maintaining safety (or lack thereof) can be an issue in keeping a range open and operating.

Inclusive range safety rules, obviously posted at your range, and actively enforced are important to both actual and perceived safety.  For examples of Range Rules, look at those posted for specific Montana ranges under the EXISTING RANGES section of this Website.  Obviously posted means having your range rules on one or more large signs, in a place visible to all users who enter the range.  It's not a bad idea to print your range rules on the back of your membership application form, give a printed copy to every new member, and to send a fresh copy to every member each year.  All of this will help members become accustomed to your rules, and will make your handling of safety issues look proper if the issue ever arises.  And, enforcing your posted range rules is important!  All members should be encouraged to police safety and rule enforcement at the range.  Of course, this should be done as tactfully as possible, but you should NOT have rules that are notoriously unenforced.  Enforce the safety rules.

For safety, the most important rules are control of muzzle direction, control of direction of fire, prohibition on alcohol or drug use or influence, coordination of fire and cease fire when multiple shooters are using one shooting bay, and active supervision of minors using or attending the range.  Having and enforcing these types of safety rules are important for the safety of range users, and also for maintaining safety for any neighbors.

The most important physical safety features for a range are those that keep bullets on the range.  These include adequate impact berms and backstops, in the best case a steep, tall mountain (often not hard to find in Montana).  Also included are adequate side berms on all shooting bays.  One standard for side berms is for them to be at least one foot thick at an elevation of 12 feet above the floor of the shooting bay.  In areas of severe population encroachment and marginal impact berm and backstop, it may be necessary to install overhead baffles to insure that bullets cannot escape the range property.  Remember that a shooter is responsible for where his bullet lands.  Range operators will be held responsible if range users' bullets land off range property.

Summary.  To insure range longevity, own your property, communicate with neighbors, watch for and get involved with nearby population buildup, adopt, display and enforce good range safety rules, and maintain safety features at your range sufficient to protect the safety of neighbors.