Is The Federal Government Trying To Put Gun Ranges Out Of Business?

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In a nation where tens of thousands of people die annually as a result of gun violence, many have become desensitized even to mass shootings. But a tragic August death at an Arizona gun range made national headlines due to its horrific circumstance: a nine-year-old girl shooting and killing her instructor with an Uzi submachine gun.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which handles the state’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement, announced it would launch an investigation. Some reacted to the story with outrage. Some noted that in many states, virtually anyone, of almost any age or criminal background, can rent a gun at a shooting range. The National Rifle Association sharply criticized what it termed “exploitative” media coverage. And one prominent gun rights expert argued that “gun range accidents are exceedingly rare” and that people should not worry about them.

But safety issues on gun ranges and in shops go beyond customers accidentally shooting their instructors. The federal government requires these facilities to have emergency management plans in place, to ensure clean facilities, and to protect workers from threats to their health. These rules are enforced by OSHA, which is tasked with enforcing standards for the conditions of working men and women. Ranges that fail to comply are subject to a range of penalties.

OSHA violations do happen on gun ranges. But they aren’t common, and they aren’t usually deadly. A ThinkProgress review of OSHA enforcement inspection records since 2009 finds that just a few dozen shooting ranges and gun stores across the country have been cited for other health and safety violations — and most of those resulted in fines of less than $1,000.

Still, some gun rights activists believe that OSHA’s aim in issuing citations for violations is not to protect the safety of workers, but to shut down gun ranges and shops entirely, regulating them out of existence.

Safe and Healthful Working Conditions

Many of the approximately 400 violations at gun shops and shooting ranges cited by OSHA or its state equivalents since 2009 have focused on lead management procedures. Because lead is present in many of the bullets used on ranges and in the explosives used to shoot them, the used bullets and residue can cause issues in the air, the soil at outdoor ranges, and in the water nearby. Those who breathe in contaminated air and those who ingest remnants may be at risk for toxic lead exposure — and the risk is especially high for children. The NSSF rewards full OSHA compliance, proactive lead management, and safety planning as part of its scoring for its Five Star Rating System for ranges. The CDC identifies lead, along with noise and other exposure, among its concerns about range safety. Some believe that the lead standards are actually too lax and a recent Seattle Times investigation found some owners “repeatedly violated laws even after workers have fallen painfully ill.”

Here is a map of all of the OSHA violations at gun ranges and shops since 2009:

One Chicago-area range — Illinois Gun Works, Ltd. — was hit with more than $100,000 in fines in 2012 for 27 serious health and safety violations, including exposing employees to lead, dangerous noise levels, and lack of emergency preparation. The range closed a year later. But this was very much the exception to the rule, as few other shops and ranges received fines exceeding $10,000.

While the bulk of the violations occurred at private ranges, some were also at government facilities. The Chattanooga Police Firing Range (a law-enforcement only facility in Chattanooga, TN), the Clifton Police Firing Range in Clifton, NJ, the New York City Department of Corrections’ Outdoor Range Fire Arms And Tactics Unit were all cited — but not fined — for multiple violations.

Jesse Lawder, a spokesman for OSHA, told ThinkProgress that under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, states can either do their own enforcement or rely on the federal government to do it for them.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for the firearms industry, posted a warning to shooting ranges on its blog last February: “Did you know OSHA wants to visit every range by the end of 2015? Did you know that the average range fines are over $20,000?” The organization invited members to learn how to comply with the agency’s regulations at a series of “lead management and OSHA compliance workshops.”

The Critics

Following the Illinois Gun Works fines, several gun-rights advocates cried foul. At Volokh Conspiracy, David Kopel mocked the citations, writing that while “gun ranges are certainly not the first business in the United States to find themselves being punished by OSHA for things that have little or nothing to do with employee safety,” similar enforcement against other ranges might mean “fewer ranges soon.” David Codrea wrote in the Examiner’s gun rights section that the actions pointed to an “agenda besides worker safety,” as part of a “‘public health’ scheme to ‘regulate’ guns.” He predicted that the Obama administration might send “’hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance,’ not to mention their rights.”

John R. Lott is founder and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a tax-exempt organization that works to “advance the scientific understanding of the relationship between laws regulating the ownership or use of guns, crime, and public safety.” His works include “More Guns, Less Crime” and “The Bias Against Guns,” and he has written several opinion pieces to the conservative Daily Caller. Lott told ThinkProgress that he does not believe lead bullets pose real safety threats. “The only possible claims that I have seen with respect to lead poisoning is if people actually eat the lead pellets from shotgun shells. Even then,” he argued, the levels would be “so far below any plausible health standards that it is hard to see anyone taking them as credible risks.”

Lott also claimed that “even the Clinton administration dismissed concerns about lead poisoning from bullets.” He pointed to a pair of letters written in 1999 and 2000 by Dr. William L. Marcus, then-senior science adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. In those letters, Marcus wrote that the “assertion that the use of lead based ammunition is hazardous is in error,” as studies of adult shooters at outdoor ranges have not shown increased blood lead levels and those shooting at “indoor properly ventilated firing ranges have shown no increases in blood lead levels.” He also wrote that “Indoor ranges when cleaned using prescribed protocols have shown no increases in the blood lead levels of range personnel,” and claimed lead “does not pose an environmental threat when used in ammunition.” Subsequent EPA documents do not take that view and a CDC examination of shooting range employees, their families, and range customers found unsafe elevations in lead levels in their blood.

Given this skepticism of the underlying safety risks of lead, Lott worries that OSHA’s regulations are just “another excuse to restrict gun ownership.” “I find the claims that OSHA regulations are being used to put gun ranges out of business credible,” he added.

But according to the EPA, “an estimated 9,000 non-military outdoor ranges exist in the United States.” The CDC estimates at least 16,000 indoor ranges. With tens of thousands of gun stores, the dozens of fined facilities represent a tiny fraction of the industry — and almost all of the fined facilities have continued to function after paying for their infractions.

Moreover OSHA’s enforcement and fines at ranges and shops preceded the Obama administration. And, according to John Monson, the approach has not changed. The enforcement under Obama is “same, same,” he said, “nothing different.”

Like a traffic cop

Most of the regulation of gun shops seems pretty innocuous. Since 2009, OSHA has cited facilities for more than 300 violations, some serious and some not, at more than 70 facilities. The average fine, per violation, was about $550. Most of these were aimed at protecting the hearing, health, and safety of range staff — well within the government’s longstanding role in keeping its citizenry safe.

John Monson owns Bill’s Gun Shop & Range, three facilities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He told ThinkProgress that OSHA’s role is a valid one. Lead is “dangerous if not handled properly,” he observed. While he believes the agency can be “a little overzealous,” he believes they serve an important role. He likened regulatory enforcement of his industry to traffic laws: “We should have cops giving out speeding tickets, otherwise we’d all be going 100 miles per hour.” Still, he noted, “I’m gonna bitch if I get a ticket.”

He notes that — like many of the enforcement actions in OSHA’s database — the initial fines he received for alleged violations at his facilities were administratively reduced significantly. “They write the violation and fines down to a level where it doesn’t make sense to fight them anymore, because you’ll pay more for the lawyer than you do for the fines.”

He says he spends thousands of dollars a year to ensure that his ventilation system is working, that lead remnants are properly removed, and that everyone has top-quality ear muffs to protect against hearing loss. Noting that he goes well above the minimum legal requirements to be sure that going forward, “OSHA will never show up in my facility and be able to fine me for anything,” Monson explained that health safety is more than just a legal concern for him and other owners. “I work in this facility. My kids come here. I have employees to care about.”

Map by Dylan Petrohilos