At Close Range

The Cherry Creek Shooting Center finds itself under the gun.

"If you keep a gun in your home, you are 22 times more likely to kill someone you know, and it's eleven times more likely that the person you kill will be yourself," says Ted Pascoe, executive director of the Colorado chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Washington, D.C.-based action group. "It's just a fact that access is a factor in making suicide more likely. And the shooting range is one place where a suicidal person will get access to firearms. We need to look at the reality that the number of incidents like this will increase with the number of shooting ranges we make available to the public."

The Colorado State Shooting Association opposes waiting periods, background checks or any other kind of regulation of shooting ranges, Fabian says. In his view, you can't handicap an entire industry because of the actions of a few lost souls.

"The Cherry Creek Shooting Center has had tens of thousands -- maybe hundreds of thousands -- of shooters, and only one incident like this," he says. "What happened out there is a tragedy, but it's not their fault. It's just something that happened."

Francisco Caceres
Rich Wyatt, a range-team technical advisor for the 
National Rifle Association, shoots straight from the lip.
John Johnston
Rich Wyatt, a range-team technical advisor for the National Rifle Association, shoots straight from the lip.

"If you look at the track record of shooting, you'll see that the reason this incident is getting attention is because it's so rare," says the DOW's Dorsey. "It's like a plane taking off from DIA. Planes take off from there all day and night, and we never even think about it. But if one were to crash, it would be an absolute shock."

While suicides and gun violence at shooting ranges are rare, the concern over lead contamination is constant -- and something the gun industry has not been able to dodge.

In the mid-'90s, two lawsuits filed on the East Coast successfully established that expelled lead bullets are potentially hazardous materials requiring management under federal law. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency started to pay a lot more attention to shooting ranges.

"We took a survey in the mid-'90s to kind of gauge concerns over lead," says Randy Lamdin of the EPA's regional office in Denver. "What we found is that the further west you got, particularly west of the Mississippi, the attitude about it became one of much less concern. On the East Coast, it was a big issue, but out here -- especially in the Rocky Mountains -- the feeling was, 'Heck, it's the Wild West. Put up a shooting range!'"

That began to change when the EPA drafted a lengthy report titled "Best Management Practices for Lead at Outdoor Shooting Ranges." Today it's often evoked as the bible of safe ranges -- and the document most likely to keep a range operator out of court. Commonly called the BMP, it includes data and recommendations from the NRA. In addition to pointing out environmental and health hazards associated with lead exposure -- difficulties during pregnancy, reproductive problems in both men and women, high blood pressure, neurological disorders, and memory and concentration problems among them -- the BMP alerts range operators to the possibility of environmental litigation and the importance of good public relations.

The Cherry Creek Shooting Center apparently skipped that chapter, because no one at the range or at Cherry Creek State Park knows, or will say, if the level of lead has ever been checked.

"It is my understanding that we are currently not required to do any kind of lead reclamation, mitigation or anything else by law," says Carolyn Armstrong, Cherry Creek State Park manager. "However, as natural-resource managers, it would be kind of foolish for us to avoid that question. As a steward of the resources here, I'm not going to say that just because there's no regulation about me creating a dump out here, I think it's a good idea to create a dump."

But in a way, the Cherry Creek Shooting Center is a dump, with hundreds of thousands of pieces of expelled ammo buried in the earthen berms that line the grounds. Peggy Duckworth insists that she and her husband "do have" a lead-management program, but according to the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, there's no record of a single lead reclamation or cleanup on the site -- ever.

"I've been there a few times, and it just didn't look like a well-maintained range," says NRA range advisor Rich Wyatt. "In our outreach, we recommend that a range operator do a full lead reclamation and cleanup once a year. It just doesn't appear to me that any maintenance of any kind has been done on that property. One of the major things you need to worry about with that kind of situation is ricochet: That's a whole lot of metal that could come zinging back at you.

"Honestly, I don't think that lead is as much of an issue as people make it sound," he adds. "You're talking about a bullet that is contained. It's not like the lead itself is airborne and spreading all over everything. But obviously, cleanup issues have been a problem, people not cleaning up their mess when they leave. If you don't do lead management, you're going to get in trouble, because everyone thinks it's going to hurt the environment. But the environment is its own filter system."

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