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State to spend millions sprucing up shooting ranges

Flush with funds from skyrocketing gun sales, the Ohio Division of Wildlife plans to spent up to $20 million over the next several years adding and renovating shooting ranges across the state.

Most of the money for the project comes from a special tax on guns and ammunition that is expected to bring a record $11.3 million into Ohio this year. Part of that must be used for shooting range improvements and hunter education under the federal law that created the tax.

“There’s such a large amount of it coming in now,” said Eric Postell, outdoor education supervisor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “Now we have the ability to really improve our ranges to where they should be so the public can benefit from that greatly.”

This comes at the same time budget shortfalls have left hundreds of millions of dollars of maintenance projects piling up at state parks. But state officials say the federal money gained from gun sales can’t be used for general park maintenance or staffing. The money also will be used for wildlife management.

“If we don’t spend it, we give it back to the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service and it could go back to another state,” Postell said.

So far the state has only allocated the first $1 million from this year’s collections toward hiring consultants to determine exactly what work to do.

Federal funds will pay for 75 percent of the shooting range project’s cost. A 25 percent state match will come mostly from state hunting license revenues.

Changes to local ranges include possibly expanding the Spring Valley Wildlife Area shooting range in Greene County with a larger pistol range and moving the road into the range to make it more accessible, according to range officials.

In Preble County, the Rush Run Wildlife Area also is slated for a makeover.

New archery ranges may be added in Highland and Mahoning counties. There currently are 41 gun and archery ranges in the state.

ODNR Spokesman Mark Bruce said the state agency likely will add more ranges to the plan as work progresses.

Parks have ‘declined’

Advocates for state parks — such as cyclists and environmentalists — said they have no objection to taxes paid by gun buyers going to shooting ranges. They just wish they had a similar revenue stream.

“There is not enough money to go around for all of the great ideas,” said Andrew Bashaw, executive director of the Buckeye Trail Association.

Mark Smith, volunteer executive director of the Ohio State Parks Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that equips park volunteers, said some divisions of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have long fared better than others.

Smith said agencies such as the Division of Wildlife, with its dedicated funding from the federal government and user fees such as hunting and fishing licenses, “do quite well.” The Division of Parks and Recreation, meanwhile, depends more on funding from the General Assembly and is facing major problems with building maintenance and more crime because of fewer park rangers.

“The state parks have declined quite a bit over the past six years because of the lack of funding in Columbus,” Smith said.

He said what state parks need is a dedicated funding source not left to the whim of lawmakers, such as from casino revenues or from oil and gas drilling.

“A dedicated funding stream has been the desire for many, many years,” he said.

Gun sales shatter records

Gun sales funding upcoming work at shooting ranges show no signs of slowing. The FBI reported 297,428 firearm background checks in Ohio through April this year. The number of checks in the state topped 100,000 for the first time ever in December, putting the total number of checks at 629,215 last year.

There were 326,114 background checks in all of 2007.

Experts credit a perceived anti-gun stance by President Barack Obama with driving gun sales, especially with increased discussion of gun legislation following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in December.

This has translated into big money for gun manufacturers. Smith & Wesson reported in March that its net sales of $136.2 million in third fiscal quarter 2013 were an increase of nearly 39 percent from the third quarter last year. The company estimates net sales for the year could reach $580 million.

“Despite … capacity increases, the company was unable to meet the ongoing demand across all of its firearm product lines,” said a company release.

The federal excise tax that will fund shooting range improvements was created in 1937 by the Pittman-Robertson Act. It levies an 11-percent excise tax on the sale of sporting guns and archery equipment, and a 10-percent tax on handguns. This money is distributed to the states based on the number of hunting licenses sold in each state and the state’s amount of land and water area.

Evan English, president of Olde English Outfitters in Tipp City, said this brings money back into the local community. He said giving people safe places to hunt and shoot helps businesses like his.

“No one in the industry complains about it because it is giving back,” he said. “Anyone who participates in the sport is one of the biggest donors to conservation.”

Paying it forward

Within minutes of the Spring Valley shooting range opening at 9 a.m. on a recent weekday, gun shots filled the warming morning air. The half dozen people taking turns firing at the pistol slots at the range’s far end noted how the $5 daily fee is much less than the cost of a private range, and it doesn’t include the same membership requirements.

Shotgun fire could be heard from the free, unsupervised clay shooting range at the top of the steep, winding road down to the range’s main entrance.

Three men with rifles spread out at the rifle range, including friends Aaron Wright of Middletown and Barry James of Centerville, who unpacked a pair of 12-gauge shotguns and a Sig Sauer 522 semi-automatic rifle.

“On Saturday and Sunday it gets pretty busy, but that’s how every range is these days,” Wright said.

Use of the range has shot up from 26,000 in 2010 to 33,000 in 2012, according to Fish and Wildlife officials.

Nearby, Bill Temple of Fairborn took careful aim with his Ruger 10/22 rifle before squeezing off a shot.

Temple, like many at the range, had mixed feelings about the tax. One one hand, he generally doesn’t like taxes and thinks that if there’s a surplus taxes could maybe be lowered, or money could be given back to taxpayers. But on the other hand, he likes what the state wants to use the money for.

“If that’s how my money is going to be used, to help support something I like to do, I support that,” he said.

Division of Wildlife outdoor education Specialist Brant Fulks said he sees the tax as the current generation paying forward the cost of maintaining safe places to shoot.

“I think the whole idea is to kind of keep the whole tradition and heritage going forward,” he said.

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