A Stealth Campaign by the Gun Lobby
The National Rifle Association, the leading U.S. gun lobby, has induced 44 state legislatures to shield shooting ranges from legal action by neighbors over the noise. Much of the legislation has been smuggled into law, quietly attached to bills just before passage to avoid debate. The NRA is a big contributor to campaigns of state legislators.
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The tranquility of country life ended for Leroy Clayton when a shooting range opened in 1998 on the farm next to his in eastern Georgia. "Sounds like Afghanistan," Mr. Clayton says.
But when the 66-year-old barber tried taking the range to court -- arguing that the noise rendered his farm unliveable -- he made a startling discovery: The Georgia Legislature had recently passed a law shielding shooting ranges from noise-related litigation. And the push to do so had come from the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.
It is rare for any industry to receive such sweeping legislative protection from civil litigation. But since 1994, the NRA has gone from state to state waging an extraordinary and little-noticed campaign to win broad safeguards for the shooting-range industry. In seven years, the number of states adopting these range-protection laws has surged to 44 from eight. Now the NRA vows to focus on the six remaining states: Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nebraska and Washington.
The laws offer shooting ranges wide, and in some cases unprecedented, protection from legal action arising from noise -- a complaint that has been used effectively to close or limit some ranges in the past. In Georgia, for instance, the law provides that "no sport shooting range ... shall be subject to any action for civil or criminal liability, damages, abatement, or injunctive relief resulting from or relating to noise generated by the operation of the range."
The NRA says the laws are necessary because growing suburbs are crowding out long-established ranges, leaving gun owners with fewer places to practice. Some ranges have also been hit with complaints about lead pollution from spent ammunition. With fewer training grounds, participation in shooting sports would almost certainly decline, threatening future NRA membership.
The NRA effort has attracted little attention because in many states, sponsoring legislators have used parliamentary stealth to get bills passed. In Kansas, for instance, State Sen. Kay O'Connor quietly tacked a range-protection amendment onto a seemingly unrelated measure so late in the legislative process that public debate on the amendment was effectively precluded. Her plan was so secret, she says, "I didn't even tell my husband."
But as local officials become aware of the laws, resentment is building. The legislation, these officials say, has effectively stripped them of their zoning power, leaving them unable to control gun clubs. "They could exceed the safe noise levels as determined by medical experts, and there's not a doggone thing we can do about it," says City Attorney Cindy Harmison in Lenexa, Kan., in Sen. O'Connor's district.
The NRA is unapologetic. In many cases, "ranges [were] being shut down for no reason other than people just didn't like them," says Randy Kozuch, the NRA's director of state and local affairs. "We saw this happening in an alarming number of states."
Asked to provide an example of a range forced to close, Mr. Kozuch says he can't think of any. The National Association of Shooting Ranges, in Newtown, Conn., doesn't track the number of ranges in the U.S., but the trade group's chief executive, Bob Delfay, says the figure appears to be rising rather than falling. In the last five years -- the same period during which legislatures have been granting the industry protection -- the number of inquiries to the association from parties interested in building new shooting ranges has quadrupled, to roughly 1,200 a year, Mr. Delfay says.
Still, in the mid-1990s, the NRA intensified its state-level lobbying for range-protection laws, pumping money into state political races. "I made that one of my biggest priorities," Mr. Kozuch says.
The NRA, with four million members nationwide and deep reservoirs of cash for campaign contributions, has long been considered one of the most potent lobbying organizations in American politics. But its influence in Washington appeared to wane during the Clinton administration, as a number of highly publicized school shootings damped public support for the organization's pro-gun agenda. In the late 1990s, a number of cities filed lawsuits against firearm manufacturers, seeking to hold them liable for the public costs of gun violence.
During this time, the NRA redoubled its efforts in state capitals, contributing large sums to candidates for state office. In many states, the group sought legislation protecting gun makers from municipal suits or shielding shooting ranges from legal actions concerning noise -- or both.
Among the beneficiaries was Kansas's Sen. O'Connor, a first-term senator who won election in 2000. After Sen. O'Connor herself, the NRA was her campaign's biggest contributor, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a not-for-profit group based in Helena, Mont. The NRA contributed $1,500 to the senator's campaign, the institute said.
Sen. O'Connor says she sponsored the NRA-supported bill last year in part to save the Powder Creek Shooting Park in Lenexa, which is a thriving suburb of Kansas City.
That was news to the people who run Powder Creek. "We didn't know anything about it," says Roger Turner, chairman of the board of the Kansas Field and Gun Dog Association, which has owned and operated the park since it opened in 1949. Lenexa Mayor Joan Bowman says no one was trying to close the range. Of the legislation by her fellow Republican, Sen. O'Connor, Mayor Bowman says simply: "It was a bill for which there was no need."
The NRA's Mr. Kozuch says: "In many states there may not have been problems. But it was best just to go ahead and get it passed as a preventative-maintenance measure."
The shooting-range industry is fragmented, consisting of thousands of mostly mom-and-pop operators. The number of Americans who practice target shooting has jumped 40% in the last five years, to 15.4 million in 2000, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a parent trade group of the range association that is also based in Newtown, Conn.
Shooting ranges belong to that category of enterprises -- along with landfills and live-music clubs -- that are despised as neighbors, even by their own customers. Tom Dean, a 71-year-old retiree, avid hunter and NRA member since the 1950s, loved shooting ranges until one opened next to his spread near Sunny Side, Ga., 30 miles south of Atlanta.
Soon, he says, lead pellets rained down on his property. His concern wasn't only safety. Shotguns -- often the weapon of choice at shooting ranges -- aren't dangerous much beyond 300 yards. But the noise "is atrocious," he says.
Unaware of the NRA's role, Mr. Dean -- who so admired the organization that he gave memberships to family members for Christmas -- wrote the NRA a letter. The NRA sided with the range. The NRA's Mr. Kozuch even mailed out fliers urging Georgia NRA members to help protect the facility from "a small group of vocal activists," including Mr. Dean. The whole ordeal, says Mr. Dean, has left him disillusioned, souring his love not only for shooting but also for the NRA. "It's almost like having a fight with your mama," says Mr. Dean, who ultimately decided not to sue.
Two hundred miles away, in the town of Millen, Ga., near the South Carolina border, Mr. Clayton took a more aggressive tack. In 1976, he and his wife had bought 32 acres off of Honey Ridge Road, a sandy lane that winds through pastureland and pine. "It was just a peaceful setting," says Mr. Clayton. Now, says Mrs. Clayton, it's "Hatfields and the McCoys."
One afternoon, Mr. Clayton sits with his doors and windows shut tight against the winter cold. His home features a gun rack and the head of a 10-point buck. He shakes his head at the sound of gunfire next door. "I'm a Baptist, and I'm not supposed to hate people," he says. "But I've just had it with those people."
"Those people" are the Jenkins family: Mabel, Robert and their son, Robert Jr. They run Hanging Rocks Plantation, a 5,000-acre preserve for hunters and sporting-clays shooters. In sporting clays, participants move from station to station, taking shots at clay targets that are launched in ways designed to mimic the movements of birds and small game. In the last 10 years it has been one of the fastest-growing shooting sports in America.
Like many such businesses, Hanging Rocks caters to wealthy shooters. There's an airstrip nearby suitable for jets. "If you want to come in on a Lear, we'll pick you up," says the younger Mr. Jenkins, 39 years old.
With the shooting-range portion of Hanging Rocks located near his property, Mr. Clayton says he suddenly felt as if he were living in a war zone. The noise was so loud, he says, it even woke his nine-month old grandson. He decided to sue.
Little did he know that in 1997, state Sen. Don Cheeks had introduced a measure to protect shooting ranges. Sen. Cheeks says he did so after a group whose name he can't remember "started fussing" about one of the ranges where the senator shoots from time to time. Rather than wait for a problem to happen, says Sen. Cheeks, he thought, "I may as well go ahead and protect Georgia now."
The NRA's Mr. Kozuch, who is from Georgia, says the effort began when he personally contacted Sen. Cheeks about introducing such legislation. "I actually worked on that myself," says Mr. Kozuch, who lobbied leaders of both houses of the Legislature.
It wasn't a hard sell. Georgia is an NRA stronghold. The group claims about 120,000 members there and is highly influential in state politics. Sen. Cheeks, for instance, says he has belonged to the group for much of his life. Georgia's then-governor, Zell Miller, won re-election after being hailed by the group as "a true friend."
Sen. Cheeks's bill passed the Georgia Senate by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, and Gov. Miller signed it into law a few months later, a year before Mr. Jenkins opened his sporting-clays course.
The Georgia law, like those in other states, offers one qualification: A range must comply with local noise restrictions "on the date on which it commenced operation." This condition is generally easy to meet, since most ranges either opened decades ago -- before noise ordinances were in vogue -- or have opened in rural locations where no noise restrictions exist.
When Mr. Clayton's case went to trial, the judge granted him a partial victory, ruling in March 2000 that the shooting range had to close on Sundays. This didn't sit well with Mr. Jenkins. "If you ain't gonna shoot on Sundays, you might as well not be running it to start with," he says. He appealed his case to the Georgia Supreme Court, where he was represented by a lawyer paid $5,000 by the NRA's Civil Rights Defense Fund.
Mr. Clayton, by now running out of money, represented himself and lost. The highest court in Georgia, in a unanimous ruling last year, cited the state law pushed by the NRA. In a brief decision, it noted that Jenkins County has no noise ordinance. Therefore, Hanging Rocks couldn't violate a noise ordinance that didn't exist.
As state legislatures reconvene for the new year, the NRA is preparing to push for shooting-range measures in the remaining six states that don't already have it, says Mr. Kozuch.
Write to Joseph T. Hallinan at email@example.com