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Romano: Backyard gun ranges — a dumb idea brought to you by your Legislature

This Google satellite image shows 2350 Granada Circle W in St. Petersburg's Lakewood Estates neighborhood, where a man wants to set up a shooting range. [Google Maps]
This Google satellite image shows 2350 Granada Circle W in St. Petersburg's Lakewood Estates neighborhood, where a man wants to set up a shooting range. [Google Maps]
Published Dec. 15, 2015

On one side of the fence there are tree houses. A sand box in the middle of the yard. Children laughing and running while friendly dogs bark and give chase.

On the other side of the fence is a makeshift gun range. A wooden pallet backed by a small mound of sand and some other pallets.

In between it all?

Outrage.

Residents in St. Petersburg's Lakewood Estates were horrified to discover one of their neighbors was planning to use a relatively small wooden target for shooting practice in his back yard. Their horror only grew when they discovered it appeared to be legal.

"I'm a military veteran, I'm a gun owner, but I'm not insane,'' said Patrick Leary, whose children often play in a yard that would be in his neighbor's line of fire.

"The Florida Legislature has turned Florida into a shooting gallery.''

Colorful imagery aside, Leary is correct. Florida lawmakers are responsible.

Legislators passed a law in 1987 that declared state statutes superseded the laws of local municipalities when it comes to gun regulations.

Upset that some cities were still toying with local ordinances, the Legislature passed another law in 2011 that authorized hefty penalties for violations. Local officials could be removed from office and face personal fines of up to $5,000 for passing gun regulations.

So now that cities and counties effectively have their hands tied, what exactly does state law say about backyard gun ranges?

Fire away.

If an amateur gun range does not involve shooting across paved roads or over an occupied premises, it's perfectly legal as long as the shooter is not acting negligently or recklessly.

Of course, the state doesn't bother to define reckless or negligent. And that's created a problem for law enforcement.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says "reckless'' and "negligent'' deal with a person's actions, and not the actual construction or location of the gun range.

With vague wording in statutes and no case law as a guide, he said deputies would almost need to witness shots being fired to determine if a gun owner was behaving recklessly.

Gualtieri says there are several backyard gun ranges in use in Clearwater and Palm Harbor and his agency has been powerless to stop them.

"My first reaction to one of these cases was, 'Heck no, that can't be right. That has to be unlawful,' '' Gualtieri said. "After researching it, we realized, 'Sheesh, it really is legal.'

"This is something that absolutely needs to be addressed on the state level. There has to be some way to differentiate between rural areas like Jefferson or Wakulla counties and the most densely populated cities in the most densely populated counties."

In the Lakewood Estates case, neighbors say 21-year-old Joey Carannante has not yet tested out the backyard range at his father's house.

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Carannante, who could not be reached for comment, knocked on doors recently to let neighbors know he was planning to shoot targets on weekends.

St. Petersburg police were called but said there was little they could do.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, however, isn't buying it. He talked to police Chief Tony Holloway on Monday and said he wants action.

"It's a ridiculous situation, and we are going to put a stop to it,'' Kriseman said. "If it's not reckless and negligent to have a gun range in the middle of all these houses, then I don't know the definition of those words.

"… If they want to sue us, then let them sue us. My No. 1 job is public safety … and those residents are not safe right now.''

St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said officers will respond if shots are fired and will forward a report to the State Attorney's Office for review.

The whole idea is so nutty that even the National Rifle Association's own lobbyist Marion Hammer doesn't support it.

She said the part of the statute dealing with reckless and negligent use of guns was added specifically to prohibit the discharge of weapons in neighborhoods.

"I have to side with the mayor on this,'' Hammer wrote in an email. "Shooting ranges don't belong in dense residential neighborhoods and, in fact, nothing in the law allows them.''

Meanwhile, neighbors say they are fearful of allowing their children outside. And staying indoors isn't much more of a comfort.

Last month in Hillsborough County, a glass door was shattered and eight other bullets struck a house from a neighbor shooting his AK-47 at a range in his back yard.

In that case, there was supposedly 300 yards between the houses. At Lakewood Estates, the target is about 30 to 50 feet from two different houses.

"It's beyond ludicrous,'' said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who lives a few houses away. "It is not a gun range in any sense of the word. It's a couple of boxes with sand inside. Any error, any ricochet is going to get someone killed.

"It's insanity.''

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this column.

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