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Landowners take aim at target shooters

The practice has gotten dangerously out of hand, residents say. In some cases, public land is being closed off to gun owners.

August 03, 2008|Susan Montoya Bryan | The Associated Press

GLORIETA MESA, N.M. — Freida was always there to greet them at the gate. So when the German shepherd was a no-show, Antonio and Eleanor Gonzales knew something wasn't right.

There was no sign of her along the dirt road to their home, and the front stoop was bare when they pulled up. A search ensued, and it wasn't long before they found her dead just beyond the tree line not far from the gate. She had been shot.

The Gonzaleses say it could have been them. Or worse, it could have been one of their children.

"We have bullet holes in our fences where we have our signs. You can see where they've shot at them with shotguns," said Eleanor Gonzales, 51. "It's so close to us that we can hear the bullets whizzing by."

Just over the hill from their home is a clearing at the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest. Broken beer bottles, shotgun shells, bullet casings and cardboard targets litter the ground -- not unlike other spots on public land in the West where recreational target shooting has gotten out of hand.

This spot has been a favorite for years -- that is, until the U.S. Forest Service recently decided to close more than 2,500 acres on Glorieta Mesa to target shooting because of concerns raised by residents.

"It's just a safety issue that needs to be looked after, and not trying to do anything about it isn't smart," said Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Daniel Jiron.

Officials elsewhere in New Mexico and in other states have been forced to take similar steps, closing thousands of acres to recreational shooting as more people move in and communities spread into the wilderness.

The entire Sandia Ranger District, which borders Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city, is off-limits to shooting, as is part of Lefthand Canyon outside of Boulder, Colo. Parts of the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona also have closed to target shooting.

But gun enthusiasts are concerned that closing public land to recreational shooting will leave them with nowhere to go.

They say that target shooting -- as long as it doesn't pose a threat to lives or property -- is a legitimate recreational activity in forests and on other public lands -- just like hiking, horseback riding or fishing.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. in Washington, D.C., blames urban sprawl and politics for the demise of some gun ranges in the West.

He pointed to the closures of the Index Sportsmen's Club in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington state and the range at the Knoxville Recreational Area in Northern California.

"There continues to be an effort, an organized effort, to diminish the gun culture in this country," Arulanandam said.

There are some 80 million gun owners in the United States, and many of them participate in recreational shooting, the NRA said.

The problem, gun enthusiasts say, is that they are being punished for the actions of a minority of irresponsible shooters.

Adrian Glass, president of the Del Norte Gun Club west of Rio Rancho, N.M., said the club did the responsible thing when homes started to pop up around it. It moved to a 700-acre plot miles west of the city.

"If you're a responsible person, you really don't want to be shooting in the direction of something you're not willing to destroy," he said.

Antonio Gonzales, 51, couldn't agree more. A gun owner, he said he always found a safe backdrop and checked out his surroundings before setting up for target practice.

"We shoot all the time, but we're responsible shooters," he said.

Leo Hubbard, who lives on Glorieta Mesa not far from the Gonzaleses, feels the same. He is a former competitive shooter who has gone target shooting on the mesa for more than 30 years.

"Some people really don't understand the safety issue. They don't come out here to be bad people," he said. "There's always going to be a percentage of people who are just problems anyway, but a lot of people just don't understand how much they're endangering other people."

Hubbard was worried that the Forest Service would have "a knee-jerk reaction" and close the entire mesa to shooting, but he commended officials for identifying where the problem was. He said about 78,000 acres on the mesa were still open for target shooting.

Just down the dirt road from the Gonzaleses' gate, the Forest Service has cleaned up most of the trash and posted signs warning visitors that shooting there is off-limits.

But the Gonzaleses are still apprehensive about letting their granddaughter play outside. Some shooters are still taking aim at cardboard targets in the clearing.

"It's aggravating," Antonio Gonzales said, shaking his head. "It's convenient for them to just cross into the forest land and blast away, and who gives a damn who you're affecting. What if it was them and their kids and their backyard?"

Forest officials say they plan to crack down.

As for the Gonzaleses, they balk at the idea of moving. Their families have been on the mesa for generations, working the land, raising cattle and watching over the community.

"The land I live on was homesteaded by my grandfather, so it's not like it would be easy to move," Eleanor Gonzales said. "It was handed down to me. I'd like to pass it down to my children and my grandchildren."

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