Florida Keys

Legislature tries again to regulate backyard gun ranges

Doug Varrieur shoots at a target he built at his canal front home in a residential neighborhood on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys.
Doug Varrieur shoots at a target he built at his canal front home in a residential neighborhood on Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys. Miami Herald staff

The Florida Legislature seems intent on ordering a cease fire at backyard shooting ranges — stemming from a situation that arose out of the Florida Keys in early 2014.

Bills filed in both the Florida Senate (SB 130) and Florida House (HB 41) would prohibit outdoor gun ranges in residential neighborhoods. Both bills passed legislative committees without major opposition this week in Tallahassee.

State Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo) plans to co-sponsor the House gun-range bill filed by Rep. Neil Combee (R-Polk City).

“I am absolutely, overwhelmingly in support of this,” Raschein said Friday. “Hopefully it will clear up a situation like we saw in the Keys and that came up in other areas of the state.”

The bills are endorsed by state law-enforcement associations — and have not been opposed by the powerful National Rifle Association.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said he is a strong Second Amendment supporter but wants to see gun ranges limited to remote areas.

“The Keys are just too geographically challenged to have a gun range in the backyard,” Ramsay said Friday. “Those are better in areas where you don’t have to worry quite so much about stray rounds or noise adversely affecting neighbors.”

In January 2014, neighbors of Big Pine Key seasonal resident Doug Varrieur protested when Varrieur started Wednesday-afternoon shooting sessions on his subdivision property.

County officials learned that state law effectively bans local government from doing anything about it as long as the shooting could not be deemed “reckless.”

The existing law “could allow somebody with a fully automatic rifle to shoot at 3 a.m., eight feet away from his neighbor,” Ramsay said. “It’s just ridiculous.”

The Big Pine range was featured nationally on satirical news show “The Colbert Report,” and actual news reports.

Varrieur voluntarily dismantled his range in July 2014. He then contended he built the range intending to make a point about Florida’s unsafe gun laws.

The 2016 bills would “prohibit the recreational discharge of a firearm outdoors, including for target shooting or celebratory shooting, in an area that ... is primarily residential in nature and that has a residential density of one or more dwelling units per acre.”

Exceptions have been added for a self-defense shooting or an accidental gun discharge.

A similar bill died in the state Senate last year when the Legislature adjourned early due to differences over health-care law.

The current bills will be further reviewed when the Florida Legislature holds its regular session Jan. 8 through March 11 in 2016.