Plymouth says poor conditions led to shutdown. Instructor says it was payback for new access law.
Plymouth city leaders suddenly shut down their police shooting range last week, upsetting residents and volunteer firearms safety instructors who planned to use the range next month to train kids to shoot.
They say the abrupt closing was directed at them because they initiated legislation for a new state law that requires publicly funded ranges to open for youth gun training -- a law that Plymouth leaders had opposed.
City leaders counter that the basement shooting range has mold problems and outdated equipment and needs costly renovations. Shutting it down now will save taxpayers money, they say.
"This facility is a subpar facility at best," Police Chief Mike Goldstein said. "I'm concerned about [the students'] safety."
He acknowledged that the prospect of public use of the facility speeded up its closing.
"Is it coincidental? Yeah. Was it on purpose? No," he said. "But the fact that the public would have access did weigh in on the process."
The new law requiring public ranges to be opened for youth gun training, which passed in April, was widely opposed by police and city leaders from around the metro who feared it would mean added costs and liability.
Each year, about 24,000 Minnesota kids -- 7,000 in the metro -- take the youth firearms safety course from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While Maple Grove has long hosted DNR classes at its range, some cities -- Minnetonka, for example -- have never allowed public use because of liability concerns.
The South Metro Public Safety Training Facility in Edina, which is used by Bloomington, Eden Prairie and Edina police, has refused to host DNR classes for several years because it must staff the facility for classes. Because of the new law, they're opening to classes one day a week.
"None of the public safety facilities care to have it forced on us," said Deb Fields, executive director at the South Metro range. "Believe me, [kids are] lined up down the sidewalk [for the classes], so I do support the cause. But the state never showed up to support us." If the state would raise the tuition for the class, and give facilities a portion to cover expenses, she said, "it would probably be a different story."
The new law was initiated by Plymouth resident David Larson, 58, a firearms safety instructor. Struggling to find a shooting range for his class, he noticed one in the fire station near his home. When the city declined to open it, he went to the Capitol.
An amendment that was tacked onto the omnibus fish and game bill requires metro-area shooting ranges that get public money -- except those in Minneapolis and St. Paul -- to be made available twice in the spring and twice in the summer for DNR firearms safety classes.
Goldstein wrote legislators that Plymouth opposed it, saying the provisions "are too broad."
But the bill passed and Larson planned an Aug. 18 gun safety field day in Plymouth. Goldstein said he gave the OK but told Larson that he would need to go elsewhere if water continued to leak into the facility as it has for the last few years.
When Goldstein told City Council members on July 10 that the leak was still there, they agreed to close the range immediately.
City: Leak prompted closure
Goldstein told council members that the range, in use since 1989, needed $150,000 in renovations. The city has spent about $170,000 renovating and dealing with mold problems in addition to annual operating costs of about $50,000.
"There are certain tactics we can't carry out," he said. "And it's not a safe place."
While council members didn't mention the DNR classes, most agreed they'd save money closing a range that has "run its course," Mayor Kelli Slavik said at the meeting. She declined to comment for this story.
Larson said he feels targeted for pushing for the new law and that he's disappointed by the closure.
"I was hoping Plymouth would be the poster child for success and the first seven-county city to have a police range [used for firearms safety courses]," Larson said. "We're having a resurgence in the shooting sports and a big, big part of that is in Plymouth."
Although it oversees the classes, the DNR isn't involved in the dispute. DNR Maj. Roger Tietz said that many cities, especially in outstate Minnesota, long have had police partnerships with sportsmen's clubs and vice versa.
"It just seems like it would be a natural fit," he said. While cities that oppose opening ranges to the public may have legitimate concerns, he said, "It's not like instructors are going to be there every day."
Plymouth will keep the basement closed to manage the mold, but keep the other three floors of the fire station open.
Students such as 15-year-old Gracie Tripp of Plymouth now must look elsewhere for the field training she signed up for. She must finish the course in order to compete in her school's new trapshooting club. Her mom has scoured the Twin Cities for classes near their home.
"There's just a big gap of where you can go in the western suburbs," Julie Tripp said. "They fill up quickly. I honestly don't know what we're going to do."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib