[Note: The following was first published in the October 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
Where I grew up, in a major metropolitan area, finding a place to shoot a gun was just a matter of getting out of town. My older brother (by 10 years) knew of an abandoned gravel pit on the outskirts of the city and we went there to plink with his collection of various hand and long-guns. He made sure I knew how to operate each safely, and I have good memories of those times when learning how to safely use a gun was just another right-of-passage for someone growing up. I eventually took an official firearms course to obtain a card that would allow me to hunt with my brother as a minor.
When I eventually made my way to Alberta with my own collection of hunting firearms, my hunting buddies and I would likewise find some suitable and legal spot on crown land, pace off 100 yards or so and sight-in our rifles and practice shooting positions we might use in the field. This just seemed as natural as sharpening a knife or erecting a tent. We knew of gun ranges where you had to pay a fee to use, but we didn’t see the point.
Now of course, times have changed. There are many more people in this country who haven’t grown up learning the safe use of guns, and problems with guns have increased. So, you can no longer just obtain a gun. You have to take a course and hold a licence. Both are good ideas as far as I’m concerned. You should know how to safely use a gun before owning one and anyone with a criminal record should not hold a gun licence. However, finding a place to shoot your gun can be a problem, especially if you want to shoot regularly near your home.
When I moved to a rural residence in Parkland County west of Edmonton several decades ago, I garnered permission from my next door neighbor to use his quarter-section to shoot provided his cattle were not present and I did it safely. This worked for several years until the ownership changed and I was no longer welcome to shoot there. At the same time, more residential developments came into the area and I no longer felt comfortable shooting there. So, I took out a membership in the Wabamun Gun Club (WGC, associated with the Stony Plain Fish and Game Association) and started using its range.
The rural outdoor range is situated in a former mine pit and has few amenities other than the basics: sheltered shooting benches, target stands set at various distances, and a backstop (the pit walls) to absorb bullets. The range does not have indoor facilities or trap or skeet shooting. In those days, use of the range was casual. Members were issued keys to the gate and they could come and go as they pleased, as long as they signed in and out. Members could bring guests and those members and guests who showed up to shoot at the same time agreed among themselves how cease-fires etc. were to be called. Basic range-use rules were posted and it was assumed all would follow those rules and act in a safe manner.
This system has worked fine for the many decades the range has been in existence (since the 1950s). As the federal government began tightening controls on gun ranges, the club continually passed inspections by Alberta’s Chief Firearms Officer (CFO) who has the authority to close gun ranges if they do not follow federal regulations. As well, local law enforcement agencies, as groups and individuals, use the range to practice procedures and pass certifications.
Then we began to hear how other gun ranges in the province, despite being initially positioned in rural areas, were being threatened with or indeed closed because of complaints from encroaching residential development. It must be remembered that it is not just the federal government that has jurisdiction over gun ranges. For example, local municipalities can close ranges by simply withdrawing or not renewing development permits.
Perhaps the best example of this situation is what has happened to the Spruce Grove Gun Club (SGGC), a club that has been around for over 40 years with a range offering many amenities, including indoor facilities and trap shooting. In recent years, acreage developments began to surround the range and the club received complaints from some of these residents about noise and a few bullets striking buildings. The RCMP investigated the latter complaints (noise is not in RCMP jurisdiction) and could find no direct evidence the projectiles came from the range, although the range was a likely suspect. However, when Parkland County approved the club’s application for renewal of its development permit this year, local residents appealed the ruling to Parkland’s Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB). As a result, the range was closed pending the results of an SDAB hearing. After the hearing, the SDAB determined the permit would be granted provided the club complied with certain conditions having to do with range safety and noise. This the club is in the process of doing, as of this writing, and hopes to re-open the range soon. (P.S., the range is now open.)
In the meantime, applications for memberships in the WGC (the range at some distance from the SGGC range) have increased, causing the club to cease granting new memberships until such time an assessment can be made as to how many members we can maintain with good services provided by our volunteers. At the same time, our club has been having its own issues with neighbors in nearby residences, similar to what occurred with the Spruce Grove club. As with the SGGC, it is hard to understand how a bullet could leave our range unless it was deliberate. So, we are implementing plans to put electronic pass-card entry/exit and video surveillance systems on the range and increasing the number and presence of Range Safety Officers.
As well, the club shut the range down this summer to undertake upgrades to the facilities, suggested by the CFO, that would limit the possibilities of errant shots ricocheting or otherwise leaving the range. These include overhead barrel limiters that stop bullets aimed significantly above the targets and anti-skip berms on the ground that absorb shots fired below the targets. Members stepped up and donated their skills and effort to bring the range up to modern standards. As well, some local businesses donated supplies and equipment. All helped to keep costs low.
One thing is certain, our range will not be the casual-use range it used to be. Times have definitely changed. There are more people living in our rural areas and more people interested in shooting guns. However, opportunities to shoot guns are dwindling. Even shooting on crown land (wherever legal) is becoming an issue as more and more people use and exploit our wildlands and do not wish to be disturbed or threatened by random shooters.
Using a gun range is obviously the safest way to shoot. But membership is costly, and in many of these clubs, membership is limited as range capacities are reached. More gun ranges are obviously the answer, but who will provide them and where should they go?