TARPON SPRINGS — A town hall meeting that drew nearly two dozen residents and observers to the Tarpon Springs Community Center on Tuesday night erupted into a shouting match over a large indoor gun range planned for the U.S. 19 corridor.
The forum about Reload Gun Range, a nearly 60,000-square-foot facility being touted as one of the largest and most advanced in the Southeast, was organized by Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Hayhoe, who opposes the range, kicked off the meeting by presenting information about restrictions on Florida cities' ability to enforce local gun laws, which he believes would hamper authorities in policing the range's clientele. He accused city officials of attempting to "push through" a vote on the range without input from churches, hospitals or residents. He called for the matter to be decided by voter referendum. "We think that the city owes the public an open forum to determine if they want this kind of facility there. Build us a family-oriented facility that celebrates life. All these people in there are going to be celebrating death," said Hayhoe, 83, of Wesley Chapel.
The comment touched off a nearly hourlong debate between range supporters and opponents, during which several people stormed out. Supporters argued that the range amounts to a "business decision" that would generate tax revenue and eliminate a vacant motel and restaurant that have blighted the property for a decade.
"It's people, not guns, that kill," said Mark Jones, a 63-year-old life member of the National Rifle Association who plans to use the range.
"You're talking about gun safety. What better way than to have a gun range, a professional place where people can go to learn the appropriate way to handle guns?" asked lifelong Tarpon resident Nick Geriakos, 48.
Lake Tarpon resident Kay Pitchon, 66, said she's not worried about educated gun users. Rather, she fears an influx of concealed weapons holders who might try to settle a dispute over loud music or texting with a gun.
Peter Grace, 62, of the Tarpon Shores community, said the "stand your ground" law might protect anyone who took matters into their own hands.
Tim Keffalas, a Pinellas County Commission candidate from Tarpon, criticized opponents for not being "proactive" in becoming involved in range discussions early on. But they argued that they only learned of the issue after the Tampa Bay Times reported this month on the first vote by city staff.
Reload Gun Range has already won the support of city staff and Tarpon's Planning and Zoning Board. The City Commission will consider final approval April 15.
Grace reminded people that residents in the past managed to rally enough opposition to cancel plans for a waterfront Walmart.
"If we don't want a gun range here, let (city commissioners) know. We'll mobilize," he said, drawing applause.