2017-03-30 / Front Page

A TALE OF TWO TOWNS

Target range issue has fervent backers, critics
BY TIM RIEL

Nick Robertson grew up a typical Midwestern boy in the 1940s, spending weekends from school with a .22-caliber rifle in his hand, father by his side.

He was in kindergarten the first time he killed an animal. His mother wasn’t thrilled because it was dark, but a fox was caught in the trap line, and it was the men’s responsibility to finish the job.

The family had no electricity or running water, so it was the outdoors where the world started to make sense for Robertson. He was about 15 feet away from the animal when he fired his weapon.

“We did it out of necessity,” said Robertson, now 77. “It was a way of life. I learned some valuable lessons. I learned to operate a weapon. I learned the damage it can do. I learned to never point a gun at anything unless you plan to use it.”

Following that first kill, Robertson has become a proficient shooter, from collecting 25-cent bounties on groundhogs to serving with the U.S. Navy. Since 1963, he has been using his Carr Lane farm for target practice and skeet shooting.


Nick Robertson practices shooting at his home at 109 Carr Lane. He said he learned valuable lessons while being taught how to shoot as a child in the Midwest. While he shoots far less than he did, Robertson said he would still like that privilege. Nick Robertson practices shooting at his home at 109 Carr Lane. He said he learned valuable lessons while being taught how to shoot as a child in the Midwest. While he shoots far less than he did, Robertson said he would still like that privilege. Despite Robertson’s history with guns, however, this isn’t Iowa during World War II; this is Rhode Island in the 21st century. That distinction is where the lines have been drawn — traditional institutions vs. modern concerns — in the argument centering around whether the town should do something about privately operated shooting ranges.

The law

The town councilors are being asked to consider two proposed ordinances at a April 10 hearing. The first measure is prohibition, which means no more firing weapons anywhere on Conanicut Island. The other option regulates times, setbacks and locations, permitting ranges only in the two largest zoning designations: RR-80 and RR-200 zones. Most of those properties are found on the Beavertail peninsula, the Highland Drive-Fort Wetherill area and north of the Great Creek, sans the Jamestown Shores. This measure also calls for 500-foot setbacks from houses, which eliminates dozens of properties.


— Nonie Drexel, a Blueberry Lane resident opposed to private target ranges — Nonie Drexel, a Blueberry Lane resident opposed to private target ranges This latest attempt to regulate shooting follows two failed efforts for compromise. While the administration has tried to juggle the interests of shooters and their opponents, the two sides aren’t interested in budging — for them it’s all or nothing.

The opponents

When attorneys John Murphy and Christian Infantolino were approached in 2014 by East Shore Road homeowner Chris Cannon, it was nothing more than a client meeting. Cannon, who lives across the street from 21 Wildflower Lane, had safety concerns with his neighbors. In their backyard is a shooting range, which lies directly south of the Parker farm, a system of publicly accessible trails owned by the land trust. Cannon was worried about bullets flying aimlessly, especially while hiking with his grandchildren.

Since that initial meeting, Murphy and Infantolino have parsed NRA regulations and neighboring communities’ ordinances.

One major revelation was a reported shooting accident in the village. Despite shooters saying they have been accident-free, Murphy was told that a man shooting targets missed his mark and the bullet entered his neighbor’s home through a window. Murphy did not divulge a date or location because he was told in confidence.

“Just because incidents go unreported doesn’t mean they don’t happen,” he said.

The men have since jumped in with both feet. “I started in this matter as a hired attorney,” said Murphy, an active member of the Newport Rifle Club who, like Cannon, enjoys walking the Parker farm with his grandson. “But I quickly realized that there’s nowhere safe to shoot in Jamestown.”

Infantolino, the father of two young children, also gravitated toward prohibition after starting at a neutral position.

“Today, you can put a piece of paper on a tree and legally fire any licensed firearm,” he said. “That could be an AK-47. That can be a 9-millimeter. That can be a .50 caliber. Police can’t say anything.”

Blueberry Lane’s Nonie Drexel and Westwood Road resident prosecutor Randy White also joined Cannon’s contingency. Each member claims independence, but a common theme has brought them together — shooting guns is inherently dangerous.

“A handful of shooters said their grandfathers taught them the right way to handle a gun,” White said. “If there are seven grandfathers who taught their grandchildren to shoot, are any of them the same? And if they’re not, what’s the bottom threshold?”

The glaring dilemma, White said, is that accidents do happen. In 2002, he prosecuted an East Providence police officer who accidentally shot a SWAT team member during a routine training exercise.

“These men were among the best trained gun users,” he said. “This was a fatal mistake. It cost one man his life, and the other his career. Your hobby, no matter how much you enjoy it, should not expose me and my 5,600 fellow neighbors to the risks that we shouldn’t have to bear.”

Drexel said this issue is driven by nostalgia from the “good old boys.”

“I’ve had the great luck and privilege of owning 60 acres of property,” she said. “I’ve always supported hunting and wildlife management. But land ownership is a responsibility to your neighbors. How is shooting targets responsible stewardship? Endangering your neighbors is the most irresponsible thing you can do as a landowner.”

Ban only way to ensure safety

Although the council will deliberate regulated shooting, the Cannon contingency said prohibition is the only option. Infantolino, who shot everything from assault rifles to handguns during his 10 years in Colorado, said his family lives on an RR- 80 property in Reservoir Circle. According to the zoning ordinance, his property should be a minimum of 2 acres, yet it’s not even one-quarter that. As long as he received permission from his neighbors, which would supersede the 500-foot rule, he could shoot targets on his half-acre lot under the second proposal.

“It’s a guise of safety, a cover, a mask,” he said. “I’m living on a legally nonconforming lot. There are 19 children in my neighborhood, but with a couple of permission slips, I can shoot at cans in my backyard. This isn’t a scare tactic. I’m just pointing out how ridiculous it is. Given the two proposals, prohibition is the only choice.”

White agrees with Infantolino. Because the regulated proposal does not offer full containment, it should not be considered

“Under that ordinance, someone can move into town, say nothing to anyone, then decide for themselves that they meet these horribly deficient requirements for setting up shop,” White said. “I would have no way of knowing.”

Because of the danger involved, White said the councilors should think “really, really hard” about the safety of their constituents, opposed to making this issue a popularity contest.

“We can’t divide this baby in half,” he said. “This isn’t typical zoning. It’s not trying to paint your house blue in a certain neighborhood. Unless the council is going to jump in the fray and take the responsibility they have as policy makers, then they have no business doing it at all.”

The supporters

This started as a nuisance complaint brought to the councilors in September 2014, most shooters agree. Since then, nothing has changed. It’s still about sound, they believe, but hidden behind a smokescreen of safety.

“It’s gotten personal,” said Dumpling Drive resident Steven Sparhawk, a 28-yearold NRA-certified range safety officer who has been shooting for half his life. “Look at their political backgrounds. If there were a safety issue, I’d have been 100 percent behind closing those ranges down. But it’s about noise. If this were another state and we could own suppressors, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

The town has identified seven target ranges, but the initial complaints only revolved around Cheryl LaFazia’s range at 21 Wildflower Lane, which has been operated in recent years by her son, Jon Caito. Although the family has been shooting on the property since 1987 — as a young child, Caito was taught to handle a firearm in that yard — the complaints only began after Cannon built his home across the street in 2011. After a sit down with police, Caito voluntarily agreed to shut down the range until the mess was resolved

“I object to the picture being painted,” LaFazia said. “You’d think it was the Wild West.”

Caito explained his operation to the town: “When we shoot, it’s very controlled. One person shoots at a time. One weapon is loaded at a time. You don’t shoot anywhere except toward the target. Everyone wears eye protection. Everyone wears ear protection. Nobody drinks. That’s all part of gun safety.”

Paul Sprague, 45, is a latecomer to the hobby. He started in his 30s, but already has taught skeet shooting to his 16-year-old son. Although more people have been injured golfing in town, Sprague said there is no uproar about living near the course. That’s because it has to do with sound, not safety, he said.

“There are way more golf balls flying through windows and hitting people in the head,” Sprague said. “But has anyone moved onto the golf course and took out ads about shutting the course down?

The Spragues shoot biodegradable clay targets from their boat in Rhode Island Sound, at the reserve in Peace Dale and at private ranges in town. Safety is paramount at all three sites, he said, and the implication made by opponents is insulting.

“They think we’re morons,” he said. “When I use a firearm, I use it with care. It’s the same for every gun owner. There is a code that we follow, and we take great pride in that code. Why would we want to put anybody at risk? We don’t want to get shot.”

He also reiterated the misconception put forward by LaFazia — this isn’t the O.K. Corral. “We don’t do it that often,” he said. “Most of us can’t afford it. Maybe we’ll try out a new gun and shoot a few rounds, but I haven’t even gone this year.”

Repercussions and reparations

Robb Roach, owner of Kettlebottom Outfitters, is a gun safety instructor who has been shooting for 34 years. His four children, ranging from pre-school to college, all are proficient with weapons in their hands. That includes Nolan, the 9-year-old who was with his father two years ago when they recovered the 260-pound carcass Roach shot in Jamestown, the largest white-tail deer killed in Rhode Island history. The opponents claim to approve of the sporadic sounds of hunting, Roach said, but successful shooting takes practice.

“The worst thing that could ever happen would be if one my fellow Jamestowners got hurt,” he said. “I lived here my whole life. I love the town and my neighbors. But we’ve never had a single safety issue, not hunting or on target ranges. I’m trying to look at this from a logical perspective. The town is trying to create more bureaucracy because a few people moved into neighborhoods with bullet sounds. I just can’t believe it.”

Roach, 45, also is worried the town will have to spend taxpayer dollars on legal fees if it moves forward.

“If they approve this ordnance, the town is going to have to go to court,” he said.

If the town takes away these shooting ranges, which were legal when they were built, it owes the property owners, Roach said.

“If you’re going to take something away, you have to suck it up and give something back,” he said. “You owe these individuals. Either build a public gun range or pay them. The government shouldn’t be taking away something that is legal.”

Robertson, who is seven decades removed from his first kill, doesn’t shoot nearly as much as he did 54 years ago when he moved to Jamestown. Still, he agrees with Roach. At the very least, he says a public range would allow Jamestowners to enjoy their hobby.

“I shoot from time to time, nothing like my younger days, though,” he said. “But I would still like that privilege.”

Have your say

Copies of the two proposed ordinances are available at jamestownpress.com (click the button at the top of the home page), as well as the library, 26 North Road, and Town Hall, 93 Narragansett Ave.

What should Jamestown do about target shooting on private property?

A) Keep it the way it is.

B) Allow it in “non-compact zone” areas.

C) Completely ban it.

D) No opinion.

To vote, please go to jamestownpress.com

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