Moving target

Some oppose plans for state shooting range

           Paul Burfield fires his rifle during a session at the Gulf Coast Rifle and Pistol Club in Woolmarket on Friday. The range averages 1,250 members, testament to the popularity of shooting sports in South Mississippi.

The state park service wants to build a shooting range in South Mississippi, but neighbors of the preferred site oppose it.

“I’d love to have it in Stone County, but I’ve got to represent the neighbors,” said Stone County Supervisor Wendell Patton.

Officials with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks approached the Stone County board last week. MDWFP wants to build a range similar to its Turcotte Lab and Shooting Center in Canton. Turcotte has proven wildly popular, with about 6,000 people paying $16 a year for a permit to use the public range.

MDWFP officials say they haven’t picked property, and have looked at land from Stone County to the Coast. But they told supervisors they favor land near East McHenry Road because it already has buildings they can use, saving construction costs. They told county leaders that modern engineering minimizes noise leaving a range. They said it would be manned by safety officers and that Turcotte, open since 2007, has had no accidents.

But C.T. Switzer Jr., a former Harrison County supervisor, says this property abuts his Golden Pines Equestrian Resort. He fears gunfire would ruin his horse ranch. People rent rooms at Golden Pines and ride trails winding through its 568 acres.

“It’s so quiet out there, you can hear a gun go off from 2 miles away,” Switzer said. “That’s why I chose that area. It’s going to kill our business. Horses are spooky enough without guns going off. I did a survey of customers. They said they wouldn’t come back if there’s a gun range next door.”

Switzer said he and several other neighbors would fight the proposal.

“This property they want costs about $900,000,” Switzer said. “That just doesn’t make sense, with the state hurting for money. Spend that money on education. If they built this somewhere else, I’d use it. But I don’t think the place is right or the timing is right. They don’t need to spend that kind of money right now.”

Steve Adcock, spokesman for MDWFP, said money for a range would be funds that would not, or could not, be spent elsewhere. He said the agency plans to get federal grants from money earmarked for states’ hunter education. This money comes from an excise on guns, ammunition and hunting and fishing supplies. He said his agency doesn’t need legislative approval for this.

Ironically, these federal funds have grown drastically since Barack Obama — considered to be anti-gun ownership — took office because people stocked up on guns and ammo.

Adcock said the Turcotte range operates at essentially no cost to state coffers.

“We get the federal funding, and then we have a lot of volunteers, people who are trained range officers, who run the range,” Adcock said. “(The federal government) lets us calculate the volunteers’ time as the state’s match to the federal funds.

“The easiest way for me to put it is, this money is something that’s available to the state that if we don’t take it, it would go to another state.”

Switzer said MDWFP should use national forest or other land the agency manages. Adcock said getting permits to build on federal or state forest land is problematic.

“We are looking at some land we own to see if it’s feasible,” Adcock said. “But we want to find something that’s accessible, where people don’t have to drive too far. It’s very hard to build something like this without upsetting somebody.”

Adcock said the range is in the planning stage, with the agency just “putting out feelers.”

South Mississippi has several private ranges and some law agencies allow the public to use their ranges on certain days. Shooting sports, especially in the Deep South, are as popular as ever, and ranges public and private in Mississippi host many skeet, pistol and rifle competitions. Hunters use the ranges to hone their skills and sight weapons. Groups such as Boy Scouts and 4-H use the ranges to teach.

The Turcotte range, where there are frequently long lines to use it, has 11 sporting clays stations, a 180-yard rifle range, pistol ranges and an archery range.

Chester Abbott, president of the private, nonprofit Gulf Coast Rifle and Pistol Club in Woolmarket, said his range averages about 1,250 members. Membership costs $200 a year.

Abbott says he has mixed feelings about the state opening a range nearby.

“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” Abbott said. “I’m sure it would have some impact on our membership. But there are a lot of people who just want to shoot two or three times a year, and they’d have to join and pay $200 here. As a sportsman, I know the demand is there. I’m sure there’s enough demand for both of us to operate.”

Patton said he hopes MDWFP can either find other nearby land to which neighbors won’t object, or else MDWFP and East McHenry Road neighbors can make peace.

“I may try to take some of these folks up to that Turcotte range,” Patton said. “They told us it’s right next to million dollar homes, and the only complaints they get about it is that people have to wait so long to get their turn to shoot. One guy (with MDWFP) told me it would bring property values up.

“We have a lot of people down here who love to hunt and shoot.”

By GEOFF PENDER – glpender@sunherald.com

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