Licensed gun owners in Florida can legally put shooting ranges in their back yards, but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. The Legislature should rewrite state law to better protect neighborhoods from such reckless behavior.
Since 1987, state law has allowed licensed gun owners to shoot on residential property as long as they do not "recklessly or negligently" discharge a firearm. The law caught the attention of a Florida Keys resident in December. According to the Miami Herald, Doug Varrieur was frustrated because the nearest gun range was 25 miles from his house, cost too much and was indoors. A gun shop owner told him about the law, and it wasn't long before Varrieur built a shooting range in his yard. Neighbors complained about noise and safety, and the Monroe County Commission started trying to put a stop to his weekly shooting practice.
But there was little local government could do. Varrieur's actions are protected by state law. It prohibits firing in a public place, on the right of way of paved roads or over an occupied premises. It also bans recklessly or negligently shooting on residential property. But the law stops short of defining reckless or negligent behavior. Its language is subjective and gives wide leeway, leaving law enforcement to make sense of who has the right to shoot on private property and who doesn't. It's a judgment call that could mean something different on rural property than it does in densely populated areas such as much of Tampa Bay.
It's worth noting that some of the strongest calls for rewriting the gun law have come from gun owners and other Second Amendment supporters, including Varrieur. He worries that, as written, the law allows people to shoot in their yards without appropriate backdrops and other safety precautions. And sometimes, despite having safeguards in place, even the surest shots miss.
The Legislature created this potential mess with its vague law, and lawmakers should fix it. Last year, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office had two queries about building gun ranges on private property. The day after news reports about Varrieur surfaced in January, the department got another query. There will likely be more as word of the law spreads. When the questions come, the Legislature should make sure that law enforcement can provide the public with answers that put safety first and take ambiguity out of the law. Anything less amounts to a game of Russian roulette where public safety is the primary target.