The outdoor industry has been making a big push over the past two years to assure access to the country's public lands. It has largely been effective, with some states having gone so far as to pass laws guaranteeing access rights to hunter, shooters and anglers.
But there's also a largely unrecognized pushback to block that access in what has been recognized as the achilles heel of the access movement: the fact that some recreational shooters are, essentially, oblivious to the fact that their refusal to police themselves is giving anti-gun advocates the ammunition they need to be completely reasonable in denying that access.
There's a lot of semi-accurate information used in attempts to close ranges- from the idea that binary marker targets like Tannerite start fires (they don't -but ricochets from bullets can)-to exaggerated reports from others using the public lands reporting "hundreds of rounds whistling over their heads."
But when it comes to the question of "leave no trace" it seems many shooters are guilty of massive "fails". These bonehead shooters regularly leave behind shotshell hulls, spent brass, empty ammo boxes, paper targets and a list of shot-up "targets" that range from exploded paint cans to sofas, big screen televisions, and in some remote areas, entire shot-up vehicles.
On the Fourth of July holiday weekend, a 60-year old camper was killed after being hit by a stray round. Others call the Pike National Forest a "war zone" because of target shooters who appear determined to set up wherever they like and simply start firing.
That's the achilles heel that has led to emergency closures of public lands, including formerly designated shooting areas, across the country.
And the fact that it is correct that these public lands are accessible to shooters isn't nearly enough argument to thump a chest and get irate over being denied access to "our public lands."
Bad behavior- especially bad behavior with the potential to put lives at stake- should lead to loss of access. If your shooting endangers others, it should lead to your punishment, not the loss of privileges for everyone.
That's true whether we're arguing over ORVs that go off designated trails, jet skiers who rock docks and endanger swimmers, or shooters who think it's OK to haul their unwanted junk somewhere, shoot it full of holes, then leave it behind.
But shooters, especially the inconsiderate ones, have a quiet intimidation factor going for them: they're armed. And those are the ones who put everyone at risk.
I've watched people on public ranges around the country who weren't just poorly behaved, but downright stupid. They're not just inconsiderate jerks, they're dangerous. for everyone around them.
In other cases, new shooters can simply do dumb things out of ignorance. Ignorance can (usually) be corrected with a respectful conversation, but repeated stupidity, especially when accompanied by a bad attitude, should be your cue to relocate. If there are range officials, report the problem, but two angry people with guns doesn't set the stage for peaceful resolution.
Without anything but anecdotal evidence, I believe it's these folks who cause many of the perceived problems with shooting- and hunting- on public and private land. Several years ago, I owned a small piece of property adjoining a larger tract. Thinking it would help hunters, I'd had a small parking area cleared with a gate giving hunters access to the larger piece of land.
After cleaning up everything from empty bottles, food containers, "dip cans" and gut piles (really) and having to have the turn around graded because someone couldn't resist doing "donuts" when turning around, I had a change of heart. Instead of access, hunters were met with notices that the property was posted and trespassers would be prosecuted. Idiots - probably the same ones - shot the notices full of holes, but the lock and chain kept them out of our fields. The neighbors quickly followed suit, meaning hunters now had to drive several miles further to access the hunting land.
My personal experience isn't unique, and it makes it difficult to argue for unfettered access to public lands when I know that there are people -including shooters and hunters- who have no problem leaving their trash behind for someone else to clean up.
And no, they're not the only ones guilty of those inconsiderate acts. Early this spring, portions of the Appalachian Trail were closed after hikers had literally "done their business" along those sections to the point they'd become health hazards.
But inconsiderate shooters make us all easy targets -because their actions "fit the narrative" of the anti-gun movement.
There are a few very simple rules for shooting on public lands -and public ranges- that can be carried over from kindergarten:
if you put it down, pick it up.
if you brought it, take it with you when you leave
treat everyone -and their property the way you want to be treated
try to pick up at last one piece of someone else's mess
Otherwise, we'll find more articles like yesteday's New York Times piece proclaiming "In Quite Woods, A Clamorous Gun Debate" -and it will be a debate we'll lose.