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?'"
At a rally last fall welcoming NRA president Charlton Heston to Colorado, soon-to-be lieutenant governor Jane Norton announced that Colorado was eager to expand its shooting-range business. She vowed that the state was "going to work to identify state-owned land that might be suitable for private gun ranges." And the Department of Natural Resources is making good on Norton's promise.
This month, the DNR revealed a list of possible cutbacks and revenue-stimulating programs that could save millions of dollars. The state is now soliciting input on those proposals, most of which would require approval by the Colorado Legislature. Devised with the help of a Utah consulting firm that was paid handsomely for its input, the "Core Mission Project" calls for cuts of some parks programs, increased usage fees for others, and additional revenue-generating amenities, including video arcades, rental cabins and paid advertisements on park buildings and brochures. It also calls for more shooting ranges.
Lake Pueblo State Park and the old Lowry bombing range are being considered as possible shooting-range sites; according to Laverty, they could be financed through private investment as well as sources like the Great Outdoors Colorado trust and lottery funds.
Although shooting ranges have yet to be hyped in ads encouraging citizens to support nature by buying scratch tickets, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.
"We want to be open to different forms of outdoor activities," says Great Outdoors Colorado spokeswoman Chris Leding. "Shooting ranges are something that the board is very open to considering, but we have to take it on a case-by-case basis. We've received a number of proposals that we've declined."
The Division of Wildlife, a sister agency to Parks, is also looking for gun-friendly spaces. Every year, the DOW issues approximately one million hunting licenses, more than a quarter of them to big-game hunters from around North America who show up to thin Colorado's elk and deer herds. At some point, every state resident who holds a license must complete hunter-safety training through the DOW. Some of that training takes place on DOW-operated indoor and outdoor ranges sprinkled around Colorado, including minimal, unmanned rifle ranges in designated wildlife areas near Hot Sulphur Springs and Basalt. But there aren't enough ranges to accommodate all the licensees who need training, and so the DOW is looking to fatten up its facilities.
"We heard from the wildlife commission, which said, 'We want to see the division more involved in shooting sports,'" says John Smeltzer, public-services administrator for the DOW. "I think it's an idea that's been on a lot of people's minds for a long time. We've seen this demand from a public that wants to be able to go out and practice and fire off a few rounds and be back home within a couple of hours. They want to be able to do things in little snippets of time. The challenge is finding facilities that can meet that demand in an area that's increasingly under pressures from population growth."
"The primary goal is having a safe place for people who want to shoot," says Patt Dorsey, area wildlife manager in the DOW's Durango office. "We thought, if there's a documented need for more facilities to provide for an activity that lots of people seem to enjoy, then it's something that we ought to provide."
Both the DOW and Colorado State Parks could get some help from the federal government: Under the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, the DOW distributes about $11 million annually that's earmarked for both wildlife-conservation projects and shooting-range construction and improvement. (Pittman-Robertson monies are collected from excise taxes on archery equipment, handguns, pistols and revolvers.)
Tony Fabian of the Colorado State Shooting Association, the state branch of the NRA, sees a need for more ranges in Colorado. They're critical to the survival of the gun industry, he points out, in part because they help instill a lifelong love of firearms in future members of a well-armed militia. The NRA is well aware of this. About four times a year, the NRA's Department of Range Development sponsors range-awareness workshops in cities around the United States. It also lobbies state and federal governments on behalf of those ranges. In 1998, the Colorado Legislature made this state's shooting ranges exempt from noise-related litigation -- as they are in other states around the country -- after the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action lobbied lawmakers.
Fabian and the CSSA, along with the National Shooting Sports Association, have also lent their assistance to the state's quest for range expansion, meeting with members of Governor Bill Owens's staff to discuss logistics and possible locations.
"The governor's office clearly indicated their commitment to getting more, and we've been in touch with them, trying to work on this issue," says Fabian. "The state indicated an interest in finding public land and offering it for lease at a low rate. And the Division of Wildlife has told us, too, that they were trying to find additional land. But everyone kind of ran into the same roadblocks.
"Our organization was working to find individuals or groups willing to take on the economic responsibility of creating and running a range," Fabian continues. "But now there's the sense that we've slayed the budget dragon. We've seen budgets for ranges that are tighter and more viable, and that moves us closer to identifying lands to make it happen."
Opening a shooting range isn't as easy as setting up a few targets and letting the bullets fly. For one thing, ranges take up a lot of space. Larry Kramer, director of field operations for Colorado State Parks, says the state is looking for sites with a minimum of 1,000 acres -- and those locations aren't easy to come by. And second, shooting ranges are noisy, unwelcome neighbors. While state law grants them the aforementioned special noise-related exemptions -- meaning, for example, that a homeowner who knowingly moves next door to an existing range can't sue for noise violations -- the law does not protect new ranges that move into developed areas. "If you come to the nuisance, it's not a nuisance," Fabian explains.
"Certainly, the key is being sensitive to location, location, location," Laverty adds. "You want to do your siting in a location that is safe and that minimizes impacts on surrounding uses. You don't want someone having to camp next to one of these ranges. They don't want to hear the pop, pop, pop all day long."
In January, the Larimer County Board of Commissioners abandoned a plan to build a public range in the Cherokee State Wildlife Area after residents of nearby Livermore rallied against it. The Friends of Cherokee Park had argued the range would lower property values, disrupt wildlife and increase traffic.
"We know that shooting ranges are valid and necessary," says Marilee Louis Posavec, a leader of the Million Mom March's Littleton chapter. "But it just seems like there are a lot of questions that need to be answered for the public before they start showing up on more public lands and in parks. Who's going to profit from them? How secure will they be? Gun ranges have a problem with lead. What's the environmental impact going to be? Who's going to be liable in the event of an accident?
"It's kind of like a really quick promise, like a campaign promise, without any deep thought given to it," she adds. "With everything going on in the state right now, with our schools and our economy and everything else, I think we need to ask ourselves, ŒIs this a priority?'"
There are very few restrictions on who can shoot what at shooting ranges -- and practically none at all at the Cherry Creek Shooting Center. An adult 21 or over who appears lucid and is capable of filling out a short registration form may bring his own firearm or rent one on site: The rate is $11 a day to rent a gun ($10 if you pay cash) and $10 to shoot it. One-on-one instruction ranges from $50 to $75 an hour; Cherry Creek shooters can get certified by the NRA or earn the credential required to apply for a concealed-weapon permit. Children may shoot if supervised by a parent or guardian.
Over the past decade, Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson recalls just one incident at the shooting range -- and the culprit in that case was lightning, which struck a man in the parking lot on his way to his car.
That spotless record got a big blot last month, however. On Tuesday, September 23, a 25-year-old woman rented a .22-caliber handgun, bought two boxes of ammo from Peggy Duckworth, and went through a routine safety check with a range officer. The woman spent about an hour firing rounds into paper targets, then went for two more boxes of bullets. When she returned to her spot on the firing line, she turned the .22 on herself.
"There was absolutely nothing to indicate what this woman had on her mind," says Peggy Duckworth. "She was friendly and fairly talkative, and she had a Frequent Shooter Card," a punch card given to repeat customers by the Cherry Creek Shooting Center. "We had three rangers working on a Tuesday; it wasn't busy. One range officer wasn't twenty feet away from her. He'd been talking to her before she did it. There was nothing that we could have done differently to stop her."
"I think one of the reasons that we've seen so few incidents like this out there is that the place is very well managed," Sheriff Robinson says. "Sometimes you get a person who has made up their mind that they're going to do something like this, and there's very little that can be done to prevent it. You just have to look at it as an isolated incident."
The Cherry Creek suicide was not the first such incident on a Colorado firing range. In 1998, the owner of the Firing Line, an indoor pistol range in Aurora, stopped renting guns after a 28-year-old man shot himself in the head with a rented gun. It was the third such occurrence at that range in two years. Nationally, recent suicides at shooting ranges in Seattle, Los Angeles and Delray Beach, Florida, have prompted debates over implementing mandatory waiting periods or background checks for gun rentals.
"This is one of the few instances where a person can come in and use a gun without going through a background check," says Louis Posavec, of the Million Mom March. "And that brings up a number of questions. What kind of assurances are there that the gun won't leave the facility, for example? You could have an instance where you wind up giving a gun to a criminal or a spouse abuser or anyone. To me, that's an uncomfortable idea."
"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."
"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."
In Colorado, shooting ranges are allowed to monitor their own lead management in accordance with federal and state law. The Colorado health department -- the department Jane Norton headed before she became lieutenant governor -- lists seven private shooting ranges in the state as having conducted voluntary cleanups for violating various environmental safeguards, such as the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the management of solid and hazardous waste. Lead cleanup is expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to $60,000 per site. Some National Park Service scientists estimate that the Department of the Interior spent a quarter of a million dollars on lead reclamation projects in national parklands in Colorado last year -- some of which went to greening up sites used by the Department of Defense as military training grounds.
Lead management hasn't cost the DOW nearly as much. That's because right now the division doesn't have a lead-management system in place at the outdoor ranges it operates, some of which are in designated wildlife areas. According to Smeltzer, any DOW plans to expand existing ranges or build new ones will include lead considerations.
Armstrong says that an official lead-management program will be in place at Cherry Creek State Park in three months, after the department completes an environmental assessment with the EPA.
To Ted Pascoe, it sounds like too little, too late.
"I think the fact that they've never done a cleanup should make us very nervous," he says. "Even if lead shot doesn't place a grave harm to humans, it's still a potential killer of waterfowl and other species. If Colorado is really serious about expanding shooting ranges into more parkland, I think we need to see a full environmental-impact statement that makes sense -- that addresses every impact, whether that's on the neighbors, or the waterfowl, or the people who come to hike and bike in there.
"It seems the state sees this as a moneymaker, but I'm not sure that they've fully examined the financial implications," Pascoe continues. "What's the long-term impact on the environment? It's entirely possible that these ranges could net a long-term loss when it comes to issues of cleanup. It doesn't sound like that understanding is there at all."
After the first of the year, Peggy and Alan Duckworth will themselves be cleared out of the Cherry Creek Shooting Center.
Earlier this month, the couple lost out on their bid to continue running the facility. In August, Colorado State Parks had solicited proposals for the range from would-be concessionaires; applicants were required to submit plans for improving the facility -- adding a few modern conveniences like running water -- as well as developing a stronger safety program and proposing a thorough, cost-effective plan for lead management. According to Kramer, the Duckworths were outscored in a six-part assessment by Hamilton Family Enterprises, a local company helmed by an NRA instructor. (The shooting-range contract requires the approval of the Colorado State Parks Board, which will vote on the issue next month; no matter who operates the range, more of its proceeds will go to Colorado Parks under the new contract.)
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But the Duckworths, who've been in a dispute with Colorado State Parks over a proposed road closure that would require shooters to pay a full park-entrance fee, believe that Parks officials were determined to oust them long before the call for bids went out. And they expect to make this argument in court: Although she won't discuss details, Peggy Duckworth acknowledges that she and her husband are preparing to file suit against the state.
"We keep hearing about how successful we were and how we're a model for other parks, but they've done everything in their power to get rid of us," she says.
Laverty envisions shooting ranges run almost entirely by the state in the future. "It's time we look at the idea of expanding the role of the Parks department to maximize our own benefit," he says. "Maybe we could look at a system where we're getting 70 or 80 percent rather than the 5 or 10 we're getting now.
"We started to see these shooting ranges as a model that we could adopt and run like a business. I think it's a business we're equipped to run well."