The following letter was emailed to Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) and other sponsors of S57, which would allow municipalities to “limit or reduce” shooting at local gun clubs. The author is Bob Otty, president of the North Country Sportsmen’s Club in Williston. See related news story here.
I am writing you today in opposition to S.57, a bill on which you are a co-sponsor. Copied are the sponsor, other co-sponsors, as well as members of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, where this bill appears to be located. Also copied is Senator Baruth (I make brief mention of S.3 and associated testimony) and Erik Fitzpatrick with the Office of Legislative Council.
The stated purpose of S.57 is to “authorize municipalities to adopt ordinances that may limit or reduce, but not prohibit, the discharge of firearms at a sport shooting range”. While the inclusion of “but not prohibit” may be meant to communicate that the bill is not intended to result in closure of shooting ranges, I can tell you with certainty that ranges will close if this bill becomes law. If this sounds like hyperbole, I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss the basic economics of shooting ranges with you and those copied. Should you be open to such a discussion, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. I will briefly say here; Shooting ranges are businesses. This is both literal (i.e. organizationally) and in the sense that they must generate revenue to meet expenses and make improvements. The revenue a shooting range generates is often closely related to the amount of activity (“discharge” in the language of the bill) at the range. Even for shooting ranges that rely primarily on membership revenue, it seems obvious that if a municipality were to reduce discharge at a range (e.g. fewer operating days) that membership and associated revenue would plummet. Once this is understood, it is easy to envision how a municipality may achieve closure of a shooting range within its borders by relatively quickly choking the range’s revenue streams.
The concept of a municipality seeking to severely limit the activity of a shooting range within its borders is not a hypothetical one. I point you to the Vermont Supreme Court case North Country Sportsman’s Club v. Town of Williston (No. 2016-387). If you have not yet scrolled to the bottom of this message, I will note here that I am the current president of North Country Sportsman’s Club as I was at the time of referenced case. There were several important points in the written decision, but for the purposes of this message I will keep my comments to 2 of them:
1. In the undisputed findings of fact (paragraph 4), it is acknowledged that the Club had historically hosted approximately 12 special events per year and that the Town sought to reduce the Club’s activity to 5-6 special events per year. If the Club did not agree, an explicit threat was made to reduce the number of allowed special events to 1-2 annually. As noted above, such an imposed reduction in activity would ultimately have rendered the Club insolvent. I also feel compelled to note that passage of S.57 would, essentially, endorse the tactics used by the Town that I think could reasonably be referred to as “bullying”.
2. Whether a motivation for introduction of S.57 or not, a narrative seems to have emerged in the aftermath of the Slate Ridge case that municipalities do not currently have sufficient authority over the operations of shooting ranges. This was stated prominently and repeatedly in the Senate Committee on Judiciary hearings on Senator Baruth’s bill S.3. These statements, frankly, betray an ignorance of the subject on the part of those seeking to legislate it.
The North Country Sportsman’s Club decision states explicitly in paragraph 17 that several statutory changes made in 2006 allow “sport shooting ranges to maintain historical levels of use but not necessarily to increase levels of shooting”. Similarly, it is stated that 24 V.S.A. 2291(8) in its current form “does not protect increased levels of shooting” over a 2006 baseline. Said differently, today, municipalities have the authority to limit sport shooting ranges to a level of activity consistent with a 2006 baseline (but not less). Finally, references in both statute and the North Country Sportsman’s Club decision refer to protections for “existing” ranges. This presumably exempts new ranges (such as Slate Ridge) from similar protections, subjecting them to municipal regulation.
In closing, municipalities currently have all the authority necessary to reasonably regulate sport shooting ranges within their borders. Their failure to do so should not be rewarded with the provision of additional regulatory levers. Likewise, municipalities that have attempted to overstep their current authority should not be rewarded with the legalization of their tactics. S.57 is both unnecessary and dangerous. I have said it at least twice but will say again here in my conclusion; Shooting ranges will close if S.57 becomes law. Regardless of your feelings on sport shooting, hunting, marksmanship competition, personal defense, or other sporting activities, shooting ranges should be supported rather than put further under the thumb of the municipalities in which they reside. They are the places where hunter safety courses are held, along with other classes on safe handling and use of firearms, and where recreational shooting can occur in a safe environment, often with competent oversight. Reducing the number of shooting ranges will limit access to classes and push recreational shooting into backyards, farm fields, and woodlots.
Again, no matter your opinion of these activities, this is in no one’s best interest. Considering the information presented here, and as your constituent, I must ask that you withdraw your support for S.57 and that you urge your colleagues to withdraw the bill altogether. That said, I will reiterate my willingness to discuss these topics with you, the sponsor and co-sponsors of S.57, or any other interested parties at your convenience.
President, North Country Sportsman’s Club
Sen. Alison Clarkson
Sen. Martine Gulick
Sen. Richard McCormack
Sen. Anne Watson
Sen. Becca White
Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky
Sen. Robert Norris
Sen. Philip Baruth