BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners are thinking about adding a new adventure to their Adventure Coast tourism campaign — a public gun range possibly in the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Commissioners on Tuesday gave their unanimous support for their staff to begin investigating how to secure state approval and federal dollars through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.
The idea came from Commissioner Steve Champion, who pointed out that Hernando County has no public gun ranges where enthusiasts can shoot their guns and experts can provide hunter education. The federal program provides 90 percent funding of such facilities from money collected from excise taxes from the sale of firearms and ammunition.
Champion said he had himself hoped to build an indoor range on property that he owns but the $2 million investment was out of reach.
Champion, the owner of American Gun and Pawn in Brooksville, was called out for what could appear to be a self-serving project. County resident Bob Detwiler raised questions about whether Champion had a conflict of interest as a gun shop owner.
"Commissioner Champion on many occasions at events being introduced as Commissioner Champion has no problem promoting his gun shop business,'' he wrote in an email to county attorney Garth Coller. "That for one is very unethical as public official using his position to benefit his business for financial gain.''
As for promoting a gun range to be built in the county with public funds, he said Champion no doubt believes it "would definitely benefit his business in the long run,'' Detwiler wrote.
But at Tuesday's meeting, Coller said the law on conflict of interest was clear and that Champion would have to gain personally from the move for him to recuse himself from voting. Since there was no personal gain, he would not be allowed to declare a conflict of interest or refuse to vote.
According to the information gathered by county staff so far, the federal funds would have to go to a facility owned or controlled by the state.
Champion, who said he was "very passionate about the Second Amendment," said the Withlacoochee State Forest might be the perfect spot since the backdrops are natural, there is plenty of room away from any conflict with residents or developed areas and the county could raise enough money by selling memberships to pay its 10 percent share of the development costs.
Coller mentioned that he knew of local firearm enthusiasts who traveled out of state to find long-range shooting options and Champion said he could see that Hernando County would be a great place for that, thus making it a tourist draw.
"It could be an economic boon,'' he said encouraging investigation of the proposal. "The worst thing that could happen is they could say no.''
Commissioner John Allocco said he agreed that it was a good grant opportunity and that there were very few places for people to shoot in the area. He said he could see other kinds of shooting opportunities including skeet and archery also being included.
Education is key,'' he said, noting that it is a good time for Hernando to seek support given the senior leadership positions of both the community's state representative and state senator.
Allocco also said that having a community without anywhere to shoot and learn the right way to do it was like "gun control incognito.''
While Commissioner John Mitten said he also thought the idea was a good one for "our long term plan wants and wishes,'' he was not sure it was something the county could afford in the short term with its current general fund shortfall.
County Administrator Jeff Rogers said that he saw potentially finding funding three to four years from now. But he agreed that there were many areas in eastern Hernando County where such a public shooting range could work.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.