I live in Sundance, a neighborhood in rural Deschutes County where our home looks out over Deschutes National Forest to the west and Bureau of Land Management land to the east. These public lands are a popular playground for mountain bikers, off-highway vehicle riders, equestrians, spelunkers, hikers and target shooters.
It is only natural that conflicts would arise between users now and then. Most people understand that the public lands belong to everyone, and that by following the few rules set by federal agencies we can we enjoy them together peaceably. When someone makes a mistake, a polite reminder is usually sufficient to set things right.
Unfortunately, there is one group that threatens to ruin it for everyone: irresponsible target shooters. By this I certainly do not mean all target shooters, most of whom, like myself, are careful to aim firearms at a solid backstop. I am referring specifically to the few bad apples who flagrantly disregard the most basic gun safety protocols. Their thoughtlessness risks doing real harm, not only to those of us who live in Sundance and nearby neighborhoods, but to everyone who enjoys our public lands, including other target shooters.
This very behavior led the Central Oregon Shooting Sports Association to close its public range near Horse Ridge in 2016. According to COSSA’s website, there was “a pattern of abuse of the facilities with unsafe shooting practices, vandalism, shooting of buildings and signs and shooting from the range into COSSA’s range next door.” Say what you will about my Sundance neighbors; COSSA certainly cannot be accused of squeamishness when it comes to guns.
We hear gunfire so often from our home in Sundance that I am inured to it, and the report of a gun does not bother me. The bullet itself, however, is another matter. Twice in the past year while riding my mountain bike I have had subsonic bullets pass near enough to hear their hiss. It’s a chilling sound. I have no reason to suspect the shooters were aiming for me, or that they even saw me, but clearly they did not know where their bullets were going.
The risk of being struck by an errant bullet is not merely hypothetical. In 2015, Glenn Martin was killed by an errant bullet while camping with his family in the Pike National Forest of Colorado. Lawrence Ramdass was shot by an errant bullet from illegal target shooters while fishing in Florida’s Holey Land Wildlife Management Area. And earlier this year, Kami Gilstrap, recently married and reportedly pregnant, died after being struck by a stray bullet while walking on BLM land outside Phoenix.
According to Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District, the U.S. Forest Service has already taken steps to promote safety in the area. The Forest Service, along with the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, has increased patrols by law enforcement officers. The agencies have stepped up outreach efforts to educate the public through newspaper articles and television news pieces, and they have posted signs at areas that are closed to shooting. Additionally, the sheriff’s department dispatched an inmate work crew to clean up a mess of spent shell casings.
In addition to those short-term steps, the Forest Service has also begun talks with Deschutes County officials to find longer-term solutions. What these long-term solutions may be remains unclear, and frankly I am skeptical anything will come of them so long as my neighbors continue to look to the Forest Service for a solution. After all, how do we hold Larkin — or any other individual bureaucrat of a federal agency — accountable for his promises? By voting out Greg Walden? I won’t hold my breath.
We can, however, hold our county officials accountable. These include Deschutes County Commissioners Tony DeBone, Tammy Baney and Phil Henderson, as well as our sheriff, Shane Nelson. They all face re-election this year or in 2020, and before they receive our votes they should have to explain what steps they are taking to improve the safety of Deschutes County residents.
— Oliver Tatom lives in Bend.