Governments' Lighter Side

Welcome to the 'Gunshine State' [Updated]

What can you do when a citizen opens up a backyard firing range? Well, nothing, if you’re a local official in Florida.

Under a little-noticed part of the state legal code, which prohibits local governments from restricting gun rights in any way, Doug Varrieur, 57, set up a private shooting range in the backyard of his suburban home.

Neighbors were understandably vexed by the weekly live-fire exercises, but vexed more still were municipal officials who realized there was nothing they could legally do to stop Varrieur.

Under Florida Statute 790, gun control is solely under state, not local, jurisdiction. According to Reuters the two current state restrictions on recreational shooting on private residential property are: 1) bullets cannot cross over a paved public road or an occupied dwelling, and 2) shots fired cannot be "reckless or negligent."

After several municipalities disregarded the law, Florida legislators added teeth to it in 2011 by tacking on a $5,000 fine for violating officials, and authorizing the governor to remove any municipal leader from office who attempts to restrict gun use, Reuters reports.

After news of Varrieur’s range began to spread, Michael Ryan, the mayor of Sunrise, Fla., a community about 200 miles north of Varrieur’s home in the Florida Keys, contacted Gov. Rick Scott, asking to restructure the law, according to The Sun Sentinel. The governor’s office replied, advising Ryan to await the ruling of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality. 

Ryan wrote back, saying that to wait on a court ruling would be impractical, as Varrieur’s gun range is an urgent matter of public safety. The Sun Sentinel reports Ryan is also turning to state senators and representatives for help.

Varrieur however insists his range is safe, and that it's frankly none of Ryan’s business. (Did we mention Ryan lives 200 miles away?)

Varrieur described his set up to American City & County:

“The [firing] backstop is 12-feet wide, 7-feet tall and 1-foot thick. I have a 3-foot wide by 4-foot tall by 6-inch thick target sitting in front of the backstop. All bullets stop there.” He went on to explain the firing line is 21 feet away from the target, and only small caliber defensive weapons are allowed. The range is located on a 100- by 70-foot lot.

Varrieur says his backstop was inspected at his request by federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure the setup could in no way be deemed reckless or negligent. “All law enforcement agreed we have taken all necessary precautions to be safe,” he said.

He says that a few neighbors have a problem with what he’s doing, but he also has several “cheering him on.”

But Ryan isn’t cheering, and says zoning restrictions and restrictions on gun ownership are separate issues. He worries that Varrieur’s range may encourage others, perhaps in the Sunrise community, to build their own private ranges.

“We became concerned others would try to copy Mr. Varrieur’s gun range idea,” Ryan told American City & County.  “I consulted with our Police Department and City Attorney to understand what we could do to prevent the proliferation of such firearm ranges in residential neighborhoods.”

The answer, Ryan says, was nothing. “We realized it was unlikely that would be to stop anyone from copying Mr. Varrieur’s decision,” Ryan says.

While he wants to change the laws concerning firearm use and zoning, Ryan makes it clear he is not trying to take away anyone’s right to own and responsibly use firearms. Contrary to what Varrieur has said in the press, Ryan asserts, “I am not trying to ‘take away everyone’s Second Amendment right,’ [This] accusation is not intellectually honest and is intentionally meant to inflame the discussion.” 

Ryan says Sunrise is home to the only public gun range in Broward County, and that his community welcomes recreational and sport shooters, as well as those practicing personal protection, every day. But what he does not want is “people setting up to target shoot with firearms in dense residential neighborhoods.”

Ryan says even the most ardent defender of the Second Amendment “would have to agree that allowing just anyone to set up next door and fire away in an urban residential community is dangerous and illogical over time.” He adds “Individuals may be well- intentioned and even think they are a talented and safe shooter. However, having no restrictions in a dense residential neighborhood is irrational.”

Ironically, this is a point on which Ryan and Varrieur may agree. Varrieur says the wording of the law is vague, and that without clarification to the term “reckless and negligent,” local officials and gun owners will continue to butt heads. 

“After all, some people would think simply discharging live ammunition within the confines of a tight knit subdivision would be reckless and negligent, now wouldn't they?” Varrieur asks hypothetically. 

Until the wording is clarified, Varrieur says, “I'll continue to push the envelope - keeping this issue alive until some change for the better occurs.” And if that change means his gun range becomes illegal, he isn’t concerned. He says he has already drawn up plans to convert it into a raised vegetable garden for his wife.


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What's Governments' Lighter Side?

It is an irreverent take on local and state government news.


Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...
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