City steps away from shooting range controversy

by Angela Denning-Barnes on September 11, 2013

A sign meets visitors at the entrance to Bethel's shooting range. Photo by Dean Swope

A sign meets visitors at the entrance to Bethel’s shooting range. Photo by Dean Swope

Bethel city council in their last regular meeting heard from the Bethel Sportman’s Club about safety concerns at the shooting range. The issue arose after a conflict with a recent cross country meet near the site. For years, Bethel cross country meets have been held at the city’s sand pit. This year, with a new shooting range at the site, there are new liability issues. The gun club’s insurance comes through the National Rifle Association and is specific to shooting activities only. The city got involved because it leases the land to the gun club.

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Council had already heard from staff and several students from the Lower Kuskokwim School District concerned that the gun club closed a road allowing the public access to the sand pit.

The gun club doesn’t want their intentions to be misconstrued. They say they do support community activities but safety must come first.

Tom Doolittle is the club’s President.

“I don’t want the board of directors for the sportsman’s club to be a bunch of old, elitist ogres,” Doolittle says.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District approached the gun club three days prior to a meet a few weeks ago to use the sand pit for the race course. The club didn’t want to approve it for liability reasons. The night before the meet, the gun club decided to hold an open house at the shooting range as a way to allow the public access. Gun members were present during the meet to make sure no one was shooting during the race.

The gun club considered that a short term solution but is looking to the city for a better one before a regional cross country meet in a few weeks.

“In fact, we’re well intended,” Doolittle says. “We would really like to find a short term solution but also look at a long term solution but please remember that safety within a gun range and an active shooting range is an important issue and it’s also important for community function.”

Several more gun club members spoke to council. They all expressed that they want to be accommodating to the community as long as safety and liability issues are addressed.

Craig Rogers is a long-time gun club member.

“Our main concern is we would like to see all the shooting in the community be consolidated into one area,” Rogers says. “It’s safer for everybody. People don’t have to worry about going into a sandpit, doing something and suddenly having somebody on the other side of a berm, shooting at them.”

The gun club was created in the 1980s and used to run a shooting range on Bethel Native Corporation land. In the 1990s, Kasayulie Subdivision was erected and its proximity to the shooting range eventually had the gun club shut it down. There was no shooting range in Bethel for many years. Then about four years ago, a newly organized gun club started planning to open up a new site which eventually was created at the sandpit.

Bethel resident, Gary Hanson, spoke to council about not wanting the issue to become more adversarial than it already has.

“I think there’s more than enough space for everybody to enjoy the activities that they want to enjoy,” Hanson says. “So, I think that we can get this figured out in the long term and the short term and there’s room enough for everybody.”

Council did not come up with a concrete solution during their meeting after talking about it for over an hour. The majority expressed that it was a communication issue between the school district and the gun club and that the city shouldn’t be involved.

Council voted against an addendum to the city’s lease agreement with the gun club.

Council member Rick Robb summed it up in this way: “This does not solve this issue for next time in two weeks and for the future.”

Council discussed a city road that is being constructed at the sand pit that would allow public access to site.

The gun club says they have plans to enhance the safety of the shooting range including adding fencing around the perimeter.

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