Minnesota's growing legions of gun owners are increasingly packing gun ranges and triggering an intense demand for new ones.

The heated debate over stricter gun regulations nationally fueled a dramatic spike in gun permits and firearm sales locally. They're competing for time at crowded metro ranges with a new generation of shooters who've helped make school target teams the fastest-growing sport in the state.

That's leaving people like Gary Morrison of Otsego and his teenage daughter, who is on a target shooting team, fed up with years of long drives and waits. So this month, he and his business ­partner, Steve Benoit, are starting construction on a new indoor gun range in Rogers.

"This is really a recreation service the public is demanding," Benoit said. "There are a lot of people who want to do this sport, but they just don't have a place to go."

It's one of several ranges opening in the state. Police gun ranges like Maple Grove's are also opening to the public for the first time thanks in part to a new law. And at the Department of Natural Resources, firearm safety instructors struggling to find space in the metro are using state parks for practice or offering virtual training for adults starting this month. But opening up a new gun range isn't so easy, clashing at times with communities.

In Osseo, nearly 100 gun owners and supporters packed city meetings last month to rally for a new $3.3 million gun club after school district leaders and some residents voiced concern about the indoor range's location in the center of town and two blocks from a school. But city leaders approved it, hoping the gun club will attract visitors to their small northwestern suburb.

Range shortage

Last December's Newtown, Conn., school shooting ignited a push for more gun restrictions, and although proposals haven't gone anywhere in Congress, they led to a gun-buying frenzy. Locally, applications to purchase and carry handguns have surged statewide, on pace to surpass last year's numbers.

The number of gun ranges isn't formally tracked, but the DNR's Chuck Niska keeps an informal online list and said he hears about new gun ranges or proposed ones almost weekly. Statewide, there are more than 400 gun ranges, archery ranges and game preserves.

Near Mille Lacs, an Isle gun store opened a shooting range and archery range last year. And in Rogers, construction starts this month on Target Sports Minnesota, a 13,000-square-foot building with a 10-lane rifle- and handgun-shooting range, a store and classrooms. Benoit and Morrison hope that when it opens this fall it will draw local gun owners and northbound Twin Cities hunters stopping in the "gun mecca," home to sporting goods superstore Cabela's and the new Gander Mountain "firearms supercenter."

Morrison pitched the idea three years ago after he and his daughter were frustrated with driving to indoor ranges in Monticello or Robbinsdale.

"It's been a problem for a very long time," he said of the range shortage.

In Maple Grove, for the first time, the police range is open to the public. After being bombarded for years with residents' requests, Chief David Jess decided to specifically redesign the 12-lane shooting range so the public could use it, adding shooting stalls in a $2.2 million renovation after a fire.

"We felt there was a demand out there," he said. "This was a win-win."

The public can use the range, which reopened in January, when Plymouth and Maple Grove police aren't using it twice a week. Eventually, Jess said, he hopes public fees will help offset operational costs.

Maxed out

But even with new places to shoot in the Twin Cities, some gun owners say it barely addresses the demand. At Bill's Gun Shop and Range in Robbinsdale this winter, people were waiting an average of 2½ hours for a lane.

"These ranges are overrun," said Dave Larson of Plymouth, a DNR-certified gun safety instructor who fought for a new state law requiring police gun ranges to open for youth classes. "We continue to be short of ranges in the metro."

To relieve some of that pressure, the DNR is allowing adults to take their field day training online starting this month. Field day training is also held in state parks in Jordan and Forest Lake, and the DNR is looking for other state property that they could use, said Capt. Mike Hammer, the DNR education coordinator.

Those options and new indoor ranges aren't going to do much to help school trapshooting teams, which have ballooned from 30 students in 2001 to 3,400 this year. It could be even bigger, but the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League had to turn away 400 kids last year because ranges were maxed out.

Jim Sable, the executive director, started the league to reverse the aging population of gun owners — "gun clubs were simply aging out of existence," he said. Now that he has seemingly solved that issue, he's trying to figure out where the kids can all go to shoot as interest in the sport continues to rise.

"That's the big question," he said. "The school doesn't determine the capacity [of the program], the gun club does."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib