A new law will let young people complete their firearms safety training at police shooting ranges, even though many police departments say opening their doors to the public could be a costly hassle.
The law requires all publicly owned shooting ranges in the metro area, except those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, to allow youths enrolled in certified courses to shoot twice in the spring and twice in the summer under the supervision of their instructors.
That goes for even the small police ranges in city hall basements. Police chiefs say they support firearms safety training but wonder how they can accommodate the mandate, included in the 2012 fish and game bill signed into law last week by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Those who pushed for the provision say metro-area firearms classes face a shortage of places for students to complete their training and they said that using the public ranges would be a convenient solution.
Plymouth police use a basement range built in 1989 with space for two shooters and two instructors, said Police Chief Mike Goldstein. He describes it as a "small, intimate environment," never intended for public use.
He and other chiefs in similar circumstances are wondering who will be liable if someone gets hurt, who must pay if modifications are required for people with handicaps and who will pay for officers to supervise the public admissions.
If the city must accept liability and shoulder the costs, Goldstein said, he may consider simply closing the range.
There is no ready count of the number of police shooting ranges in the metro area. Spot checks found that Edina, Plymouth, Minnetonka, West St. Paul and South St. Paul have them. Apple Valley and Eagan share a range on city property in Apple Valley.
The League of Minnesota Cities -- which opposed the provision -- said many of the shooting ranges were built in secure basement areas where ammunition and weapons are stored, without public access in mind .
Maj. Roger Tietz of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) enforcement division said about 5,000 certified volunteers conduct the department's firearms safety program in the spirit of the Minnesota hunting tradition. To complete the training, youths must shoot 15 rounds with a .22-caliber rifle under the supervision of one of the instructors.
Many instructors are affiliated with private gun clubs, and most often, the instruction is finished at a private range. But in the metro area, private ranges are more difficult to find, Tietz said.
"These instructors started to see that their communities had these ranges and asked the question, 'Can we use that range for a morning to shoot the kids through that part of their firearms safety program?'" Tietz said.
Until now, the answer was no.
In fact, the provision, which takes effect next March, grew from Plymouth's refusal last summer to allow a DNR-certified instructor to use that city's range. The Plymouth instructor who was turned away contacted Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who heard the complaint and turned it into legislation.
In the metro area, people may have to drive 30, 40 or 50 miles out of town to a shooting range, Hackbarth said. "The firearms safety instruction courses are very popular and they are full all the time, and we just need places for kids to go to do their final part of their test." The courses are typically taken during the winter, he said.
Hackbarth's response to the police chiefs' objections: "It's just four days a year."
The DNR has liability insurance for the program that would extend to the shooting ranges, he said.
In Minnetonka, the police department has a shooting range for five people in the basement of city hall, said Chief Mark Raquet. The area also houses the city IT equipment and has been off limits to the public. "It's not a conducive set-up to be bringing groups of citizens through there," Raquet said.
No one has asked to use it, but now the city will have to be prepared if a request comes in, he said.
"Certainly we want young kids who are interested to be able to handle firearms," he said.
At the shared Apple Valley/Eagan range, which is outdoors on Yankee Doodle Road, youth already are allowed to complete their firearms training.
For Eagan, police officers conduct the training for about 30 kids a year, and for Apple Valley, a longtime volunteer does the program.
Eagan Police Chief Jim McDonald said he would be reluctant to greatly expand the number of kids. "I would insist upon police firearms instructors being present with the youth and being able to limit the number of shooters," McDonald said.
Jon Rechtzigel, acting police chief in Apple Valley, said he, too, has some reservations, but if it's the law, "we'll make it work."
Laurie Blake 952-746-3287