Poisonous Pastime – Introduction: There Goes The Neighborhood

The American gun industry is in big trouble. Hunting is fading as a sport. Guns are seen by most of the general public as either weapons of crime or dangerous toys owned only by a shrinking minority of Americans.a As a result, the civilian firearms market is becoming smaller and more concentrated.b

The gun industry is keenly aware that it faces eventual extinction unless it can break out of this fatal cycle of fewer and fewer people owning more and more guns. The industry and its satellite organizations – the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), in particular�have developed a long-range “survival” strategy to pump up gun sales. One arm of this survival strategy – selling lethality, or killing power�is described in a number of Violence Policy Center books and reports. But a hitherto less well-documented arm of the industry strategy is that of building more shooting ranges to draw new customers�especially women and children�into what it euphemistically calls the “shooting sports.” (Appendix A documents the means by which the industry is using tax dollars and co-opted federal officials to help underwrite this strategy.) 

As is so often the case, what is good for the gun industry is bad for the general public. Thus, as a Michigan hunter safety coordinator told a national shooting range symposium in 1990, shooting ranges are “like a waste disposal facility.” The attitude most people have toward shooting ranges is “not in their neighborhood and definitely not next door.”1

There is good reason to compare shooting ranges to garbage dumps. Part of this is because, in the understated words of ubiquitous gun industry defense lawyer Anne Kimball, “the activity of shooting is one that is controversial in our society.”2 Shooting is indeed controversial in America because of our world-record levels of firearms death and injury.c But, as this report documents, shooting ranges actually are bad neighbors. They pollute the environment. They threaten public health, most severely among children�the gun industry’s prime targets.d And they are backed by special-interest bullies like the NRA who use their lobbying clout to pass laws that block citizen recourse against unwelcome ranges and their influence with government agencies to cut back-room deals for special treatment. 

Spokesmen for the gun industry and the “shooting sports” publicly describe shooting ranges as places where skilled marksmen engage in disciplined and wholesome sport shooting. But when they talk privately among themselves, they discuss a less savory reality: lead poisoning and other types of environmental pollution such as excessive noise, dangerous novice shooters who barely know what they are doing, the “Rambo factor” (shooters intent on destroying targets and other objects by blasting away at high speed with powerful guns), suicides, unintentional deaths and injuries�even murders. 

These are truly neighbors that no one would want moving in next door. And “next door” is constantly getting closer and closer. As cities and suburbs expand into once-rural areas, new homeowners increasingly “complain of noise and safety,” according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service deputy director Conley Moffett.3

This report documents the problems that shooting ranges bring to those who use them, their families, their neighbors, and even to entire communities stuck with the considerable costs of cleaning up the hazards that abandoned ranges leave behind. It suggests ways that local citizens can organize and take action to: 

  • help keep these bad neighbors from moving in next door;

  • get them out of the schools; and,

  • inform communities of the hazards of existing ranges. 

a) A measure of the growing disfavor with which firearms are held among the general public may be seen in the reported decision of the Make-A-Wish Foundation to reverse policy and no longer grant wishes that involve firearms or other weapons. The Foundation underwrites the wishes of children with terminal illnesses. “Make-A-Wish Opts To Shun Future Gun, Hunt Requests,” The New Gun Week, July 1, 2000, 11. 

b) Firearms ownership has declined and those who own guns typically own more than one. In the 1950s, about half of American households reported owning a firearm. This dropped to just 35 percent by 1994. Only one in six adults owns a handgun. In 1994, just 10 percent of firearms owners held 77 percent of the privately owned guns in America. Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig, Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use, Summary Report (Washington, DC: Police Foundation, 1996). 

c) Since 1960, more than a million Americans have died in firearm homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings. In 1998 alone, a total of 30,708 Americans died from gun violence. Of these, 17,424 deaths were suicides, 12,102 were homicides, 866 were unintentional fatalities, and 316 were of an undetermined nature. “Deaths: Final Data for 1998,” National Vital Statistics Report 48, no. 11 (2000). 

d) “Everyone past toddler age should get the chance to shoot,” advises Guns & Ammo magazine in a special section, “Recreational Shooting: Fun for the Whole Family,” May 2000, 52.

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