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Wednesday, Mar 20, 2019
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Editorial: Leave regulation of backyard gun ranges to local officials

Homeowners who live in close proximity to their neighbors shouldn’t have to tolerate backyard gun ranges in their neighborhoods. In densely populated cities, and in suburban subdivisions, the homemade ranges pose a potentially fatal hazard.

Yet an ambiguous state law allows any lawful gun owner to walk into his backyard and begin firing, providing it isn’t done in a “reckless and negligent manner.”

A legislative bill filed last week to tighten the rules governing backyard ranges has good intentions but takes the wrong tack. Instead of outlawing the practice on residential properties, as the proposed change would do, legislators should leave it up to the cities and counties to pass rules governing the practice.

Densely populated cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg, with thousands of homes sitting on tiny lots, should be allowed to ban the backyard ranges outright if they so desire. And counties with thousands of acres of rural countryside should be able to fashion an ordinance that allows for shooting guns on private property with the proper safeguards.

Two recent episodes in the Tampa Bay area have brought the issue to the forefront. Last month, a Hillsborough County firefighter and a corrections deputy fired rounds from an AK-47 rifle in rural Lithia and mistakenly hit a neighboring house multiple times. Nobody was injured or charged, though an open Sheriff’s Office investigation is being reviewed by the State Attorney’s Office.

And more recently, a resident in the Lakewood Estates neighborhood in St. Petersburg set up a gun range in his backyard, but dismantled it without firing a shot after neighbors complained.

Both cases are governed by a state law changed in 2011 to make the “reckless and negligent” firing from a backyard range a first-degree misdemeanor. But the law doesn’t outlaw the ranges, a circumstance that surprised many of the Lakewood Estates neighbors, and may let the two shooters in Lithia off the hook, depending on how investigators interpret their conduct.

The proposed bill, by State Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, would eliminate the “reckless and negligent” language from the law, which would essentially narrow the law to outlaw the discharge of firearms on property that is primarily a residence or where the zoning is residential.

Not surprisingly, he has met with resistance from the National Rifle Association, which says the standards in the existing law are deterrent enough for policing the backyard ranges. As Marion Hammer, the NRA’s longtime lobbyist, told the Tribune’s James L. Rosica, squeezing off a few rounds in a densely populated neighborhood is in itself reckless and negligent and should be punished with criminal sanctions, as provided in the existing law.

But applying the law to the homemade target ranges in rural settings isn’t as simple. The shooters in Lithia were on rural property and not as close to neighboring houses as those in a subdivision. Whether they acted negligently is a decision for investigators. Whether they have a legal right to set up a makeshift gun range is a question that should be addressed by local ordinances rather than by a universal state law. As Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says, “I’m not sure a one-size-fits-all approach is the way to go.”

Rouson’s bill has little chance of being passed in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But it might serve to open a conversation about putting the responsibility for these ranges in the hands of local officials who know the terrain.

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