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Gun range in pit still too near school

On the great list of dumb ideas, this one seemed destined for the top. Some fellow wanted to build a shooting range a half mile from Hernando Elementary School. At a time when schools nationwide, including Citrus County, are being designed to shield playgrounds from the street _ and make them inaccessible to gun-toting crazies _ the plan was to make students unwitting targets.

The reaction, from parents to county planners, was quick. Kids and guns? No way, no how.

At Tuesday's School Board meeting, the chorus continued.

"Kids can't get used to flying bullets," board member David Langer said.

"Who in their right mind wants to put up a gun club next to an elementary school?" board member Phil Zellner asked.

"Our children will be in jeopardy," declared Debbie Donovan, president of the school's PTA.

Their concerns were entirely correct. On the surface, this is a ridiculous idea.

But that is the rub. The shooting will be done below the surface, about 40 feet down, in an old pit left over from the phosphate mining days.

In fact, look closely _ and fairly _ at the plans submitted by Jacques Olivier and you'll find little to oppose.

That is the opinion of the county planning staff. Last week, they recommended that when the Zoning Board of Adjustment meets on Thursday, the panel should grant Olivier the special zoning exception he needs to build the shooting range and start a private gun club.

County planners were so concerned initially that they delayed the application for several weeks for a closer look and notified all of neighbors of the site, which is off County Road 486 and Skeeter Terrace, planner Brion Bromead said.

Their first worry, of course, was safety. The mere mention of shotguns and pistols blazing away 1,500 feet from a school is horrifying. But then the planners saw that the shooting would be done, in essence, about three stories below ground.

Gunners would be shooting at clay pigeons flung in the opposite direction from the school well below the top of the wide pit. Stray pellets would slam into the tall dirt wall.

The maximum range of the shotguns to be used is 209 yards. The plans call for a 300-yard "fall zone" for the pellets.

The pistol range would be covered with a roof made from 10 gauge steel sandwiched between two sheets of }-inch plywood. These shields have been able to stop a shot from a .44-caliber Magnum, which, as Dirty Harry reminds us, is the most powerful handgun in the world.

The range would be for club members only. Presumably, this would limit the shooters to a handful of serious gun enthusiasts.

The property is fenced, as is the elementary school, and the county staff recommended that the shooting area be enclosed in yet another 6-foot tall chain-link fence.

Then there was the problem of noise. School Board member Karen Johnson said she and some parents conducted a test in which they sat in the school playground and clearly could hear shots fired in the pit.

Johnson, who adamantly opposes the range plans, said the blasts could affect children psychologically.

Bromead also measured the noise level, but he did so a bit more scientifically. He took a decibel meter to the site and sat with it in a truck at the edge of the property. When he signaled with a honk of the truck's horn, the person in the pit was to fire a gun.

Bromead honked, but the person in the pit couldn't hear him. He drove 200 yards closer and honked again. This time, shots were fired. The highest reading was 68 decibels, quieter than a car horn and roughly as loud as office conversation. The county allows up to 75 decibels.

After all of this scrutiny, the planners concluded that _ with some conditions _ Olivier's plans should get the green light.

I hope the zoning board sees red.

Olivier has done his homework. A range is allowed under the property's zoning, he has considered every safety aspect and presumably would adhere to the staff's other safety and environmental concerns.

Besides, he is filling a need. Shooting ranges are valuable in that they allow gun owners to hone their skills responsibly. In a county where hundreds of people own guns, the temptation for many is to practice marksmanship by blasting away at bottles on a backyard fence.

The chance of a stray pellet leaving the pit is extremely remote. The kids at Hernando Elementary are more likely to be hit by lightning or a falling airplane then by a wild shot.

But lightning does strike and planes do crash, and if there is any chance at all of a child getting shot, no matter how remote, then that is too great a risk to take.

There are plenty of other open spaces in this county, away from schools and homes, in which a shooting range could be set up safely. Let's hope the zoning board steers Mr. Olivier's worthy endeavor toward one of them.

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