Safety afoot at Sportsmen’s Club range

The firing ranges will be enclosed with concrete, timber.

When Bob King and his wife bought their home north of New Brooklyn Road, they knew there was a gun range nearby.

But its real proximity – about 700 yards, as the bullet flies – didn’t really hit home until last summer, when a stray round crashed through their garage wall.

“I didn’t know they were shooting right at us,” King said, with considerable good humor and grace given the circumstances.

Fortuitously, Bainbridge Island Sportsmen’s Club members, neighbors and city officials had already been meeting to discuss gun range safety when the incident occurred.

And for club official Bill Omaits, it has prompted changes at the range that were overdue.

“As far as I’m concerned, that bullet was a blessing in disguise,” Omaits said, “and you can quote me on that. The (club) board, the city, the mayor and the neighbors turned a disaster into a win-win situation.”

Safety improvements are now under way at the Sportsman Club Road club, where the pistol and rifle ranges have been shut down since the stray round hit the Kings’ home last August.

The upper firing ranges – both of which run from south to north, and are not visible from the roadway on the club’s roughly 15-acre property – are being largely enclosed with a combination of concrete, timbers sand and earth.

The 25-yard pistol range is being flanked on both sides by 3,500-pound concrete blocks, with stout timbers at intervals over the top.

The beams are being positioned according to a design offered by King himself, a retired NASA engineer, who assisted a safety committee that included club officials, neighbors and Bainbridge Police. King’s involvement pleased Omaits, who called him “our combat veteran.”

On the 100-yard rifle range, the long-elevated shooting platform is being lowered by 5 feet, and the range will be in a bowl flanked by earthen berms.

Because all rifle fire is directed through fixed “muffler boxes” that also knock down sound, bullet trajectory should be such that a round can never leave the bowl, Omaits said.

Club friends

The club has been the recipient of heavy equipment work from volunteer members and associates, and discounts from Fred Hill Materials and other suppliers.

Because an estimated 20 percent of activity at the pistol range is police training, the city agreed to kick in $24,000 toward the improvements.

The club imposed a one-time $50 fee on members, and also received a grant from the National Rifle Association.

Those donations have kept boosted a project that last fall might have looked well beyond reach.

“To write a check, it would be $150,000 to $180,000,” Omaits said.

The changes don’t stop there. Nearly 40 club members have gone through firing range “safety officer” training sponsored by the National Rifle Association, and Omaits said all future shooting events will be under a safety officer’s eye.

All sport shooters are taking safety refresher courses for weapon handling, he said.

“If everybody uses (the range) properly, it’ll be 100 percent safe,” Omaits said. “It’s just that simple.”

Work parties have been putting in weekends to bring the ranges up to snuff; an open house is planned for June or July.

Also, the ranges will not be reopened until the club property is fenced on the three sides away from Sportsman Club Road, to prevent anyone from wandering onto the grounds.

“It’s been a lot of work, but we’re going to have a very nice facility when it’s finished,” Omaits said.

While the shotgun range closest to the roadway has remained open – users fire into a tree-covered hillside, and the shot does not travel far – and many members are more interested in fishing than guns, the rifle and pistol range closure has cost the club membership.

Omaits said about one-third of the 300 dues-paying members have moved on since last fall, as shooters gravitated to off-island facilities, and some non-shooters didn’t want to pay the $50 assessment.

But those who come back will find a much-improved facility, while neighbors involved in the project say they’re confident the changes will allay their concerns as well.

Wayne Daley, a Commodore Lane resident, praised Mayor Darlene Kordonowy and the City Council for stepping up with funding, and the club for being “very good partners.”

“Certainly the safety factor will be significantly improved, as well as the noise,” Daley said.

Even King – who recalls hearing a crashing sound in his garage, and going out to find that a bullet had come through the outside wall, shattered a plastic storage drawer, struck the back wall and come to rest in the middle of the floor – expressed confidence in the improvements.

“I feel comfortable with what they’re doing,” he said, “really comfortable.”

King said he and his wife were treated to a steak dinner at the clubhouse, where they got to know the members.

“Almost to a person, they all came up and said, ‘we’re glad it hit your house and not somebody else’s,’” King said. “We didn’t go find attorneys.”

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