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It's a beautiful Wednesday in October, bright and cloudless, and the Cherry Creek Shooting Center is packed at noon. Smelling equally of gun smoke and dirt, the small, dusty range rings with the sounds of artillery -- metallic pings from dislodged shells; pops and hisses from semi-automatic Glock pistols and Dirty Harry-style revolvers. To the north, remote-controlled planes make fly-buzz loops over a model-airplane field; much higher up, jets roar away from Centennial Airport. But what you hear most are blasts from hunting rifles and, off in the distance, shotguns obliterating clay pigeons.
Even on less than postcard-perfect fall days, the Cherry Creek Shooting Center does a booming business. That's partly because hunters head here to dust off their barrels and recalibrate their scopes in preparation for the season. But this year, the action has been unusually steady since May, when Colorado passed legislation requiring county officials to issue concealed-gun permits to law-abiding applicants who, among other requirements, pass a gun-safety class or otherwise demonstrate proficiency with a weapon.
Even though Denver has challenged the measure, arguing that it violates a municipality's right to home rule, the immediate impact of the new law is clear. Demand for weapons training has exploded, and the Cherry Creek Shooting Center has been there to meet that demand. Every day, citizens show up for one-on-one instruction with National Rifle Association-certified instructors and later walk out with certificates attesting that they're qualified to bear arms, concealed or otherwise.
The Cherry Creek Shooting Center is situated on a southern swath of Cherry Creek State Park, bordered by marshy patches of wetlands and rolling prairie blanketed by dry, tall grasses and wildflowers. The state park closest to the metro area, Cherry Creek draws nearly 1.5 million anglers, boaters, bird-watchers, hikers, picnickers and botanists annually. It also draws tens of thousands of hunters, sport-shoot enthusiasts, law-enforcement officials and private hand-gun owners who come to unload at the Cherry Creek Shooting Center.
Opened nearly forty years ago, the shooting center has 22 firing stalls, a separate clay and trap range for shotgun practice, a full-time staff of range officers and hunting experts, and an unknown quantity of spent ammo embedded in its soil. The only public shooting facility located in a Colorado state park, it had a spotless safety record until last month, when a young woman came in, rented a gun and took her own life.
Some opponents of the new law wonder why Colorado allows a shooting range in a public park in the first place. But proponents see it as a much-needed resource for responsible gun enthusiasts and a model facility for the state -- which hopes to soon starting pumping a lot more lead.
The Cherry Creek Shooting Center is a sportsman's playground, one of the few places left to shoot legally and cheaply in the metro area -- especially if you're a rifle enthusiast. Although indoor pistol-only ranges are scattered throughout Denver and the suburbs, they hold little draw for hunters. Meanwhile, outdoor ranges in the area are finding it harder and harder to justify the expense of the major acreage required for a shotgun-shooting facility.
In 1996, the Golden Gun Club moved to Watkins to escape the "urban growth" that had crowded it out of its longtime location. And three years ago, the popular Mile-Hi Shooting Park near Erie closed after its owner realized the property would be much more lucrative as a development than as a bullet-ridden field.
"We're reaching a critical juncture," says Rich Wyatt, a range-team technical advisor for the NRA and owner of Gunsmoke, a gun outfitter and training facility in Wheat Ridge. "If you want to spend hundreds of dollars for annual membership at a private club, you can find a place to shoot. But if you just want to test out your scope and fire your gun just to be sure it's working right -- so that you can execute clean kills in the field -- you are really running out of places to go in the Denver area."
The shooting center has operated as a private concession -- much like Cherry Creek State Park's horse stable and marinas -- since the land was leased by the state from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1966. For the past decade, it's turned a tidy profit for proprietors Peggy and Alan Duckworth. According to park estimates, the center has grossed between $650,000 and $730,000 each of the past four years; Colorado State Parks, a division of the Department of Natural Resources, currently pockets about 5 percent of the gross. That's a nice chunk of change for a cash-strapped department that, like other state agencies, has seen its budget shrink. And Colorado State Parks would like to see it become even nicer.
"There's a lot of demand for shooting facilities, and there's a lot of money to be made from them," says CSP director Lyle Laverty. "The Parks operating budget is different from many of the other agencies in that we're cash-funded. We get only a very, very small portion of our operating budget from the general tax fund. So we had to ask ourselves, ŒHow can we increase the revenue stream?'"