In the basement of a Hibbing elementary school sits a shooting range with room for up to eight marksmen.
It’s been there since the school was built nearly 60 years ago, and until recently, about 30 members of the local gun club have been using it on weeknights — after school is out for the day, but at the same time high school basketball and wrestling teams are practicing or competing in the nearby gym.
But the rash of deadly school shootings across the country in recent years has sparked concerns among some in Hibbing about the wisdom of allowing firearms in the building, even as advocates argue that the range has safely operated for decades without incident and doesn’t pose a threat.
For now, the range sits empty while the school board ponders its fate, balancing modern-day fears with a rural Minnesota tradition that values hunting and the Second Amendment.
“What’s happened is, I think, times have changed,” said Jeff Polcher, a school board member. “I think what we’re going to come up with is a solution that’s going to make everybody happy.”
The Hibbing Rifle and Pistol Club uses the range mostly in the winter, when the weather is too poor for target shooting outside, said the club’s secretary-treasurer, Dan Rebrovich.
A nonprofit, the club pays a community education fee to use the space, as well as for all the equipment in the range, including ventilation filters, light bulbs and door locks, Rebrovich said.
No ammunition or weapons are stored there.
The gun range was built into the school, which was originally a junior high but is now an elementary school housing students in grades three through six.
Rebrovich, who attended in the 1980s, remembers using the range as part of gym class.
“It would be part of the curriculum that we’d go down there and shoot during school,” he said.
Superintendent Brad Johnson, who is starting his second year in the district, said he heard concerns about the range from some staff and parents within a month of arriving.
The past few years, at least, members have been able to use the range from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most entered, carrying guns, largely unnoticed through a door leading straight down some stairs to the range.
“But there’s been times where … the door has been locked so they come through the main building or the cafeteria,” Johnson said.
Brian Grzybowski saw it firsthand. While waiting for his son’s basketball practice to end, Grzybowksi saw a man with a rifle case walk by, prompting his kindergarten-age daughter to ask why people were bringing guns into the school.
“At that point I decided it was probably time to start asking questions,” Grzybowski said.
Grzybowski said he’s a hunter himself and owns guns. It’s not that he doesn’t trust the club members, he said, it’s that people might not be on alert if somebody with bad intentions brings a gun to school after hours.
“I don’t feel like, at this point, guns and kids are a good mix,” he said.
Generally, firearms are not allowed on school property. Exceptions include law enforcement or those arriving for safety or marksmanship courses and color guard ceremonies. Principals or other supervisors may also grant written permission.
Previous Hibbing administrators allowed gun club members to use the range after the school day ended, Johnson said.
He said he took a stand this year after trying to compromise with the gun club by allowing it to use the range when the building was empty. That could be as early as 6:30 p.m. some nights and include some weekends, he said.
It would also mean starting as late as 10 p.m. some nights, Rebrovich pointed out, adding that he didn’t think that was a practical solution.
“It’s all about safety and concern and perception,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing against the gun club. I support them and what they do. It’s just, there’s gotta be a better time that they can do it.”
Shooting ranges at schools were once common throughout the country, said Joseph Olson, chairman of the Minnesota group Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.
More recently, students across the state have been turning to shooting for sport. Clay target shooting is Minnesota’s fastest-growing high school sport. About 10,300 students participate, more than the number of boys and girls combined who play high school hockey.
All teams participate at local shooting ranges off school grounds, said John Nelson, vice president of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League. He knows of no other active ranges inside Minnesota schools, he said.
The Eveleth-Gilbert school district leases the upstairs of a district building to a local rifle club, but the building is not used by students, according to administration staff.
In Hibbing, the school board has formed a committee to try to come up with a solution. Suggestions have included designating a “range officer” to oversee club members coming and going, and making sure all use the door closest to the range.
Rebrovich said the club will respect the school board’s wishes, whatever it decides.
“If the school does not want us there, we’re not going to keep fighting it. We are respectful. We’ve always conducted ourselves like gentlemen and ladies,” Rebrovich said.
But, he added: “If we do get shut down, it’s not going to make the Hibbing schools one bit safer. There is no safety issue. Is there a perception issue? Yes.”