Local gun clubs up in arms

Say rules proposed to tighten safety would end events

Shirley Rod and Gun Club chairman Jim Finnerty prepares to shoot his M-1 Garand rifle. Shirley Rod and Gun Club chairman Jim Finnerty prepares to shoot his M-1 Garand rifle. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Julie Masis
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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The Turkey Shoot at the Shirley Rod and Gun Club is not what you might expect.

First, the club buys some frozen turkeys at the supermarket. Then there are target-shooting competitions for hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols. The winners take home the frozen birds. Last year, the club gave away about 300 of them.

Still, the club’s Thanksgiving tradition, its largest fund-raiser of the year, has been around for as long as anyone can remember. But this year’s Turkey Shoot might not happen if new regulations for gun clubs are adopted.

The change is being proposed by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration in the wake of a tragic accident last fall, when an 8-year-old boy died after shooting himself with a machine gun during a “pumpkin shoot’’ at a Westfield gun club.

If adopted, the regulations would prohibit machine guns at all public sporting club events, and require clubs to obtain special licenses, hire a police detail, and have one certified firearms safety instructor for every 20 people in attendance (or one for every five attendees if children are present) at all public events. The regulations would also require clubs to submit a safety plan to their local police department 30 days before each event.

A state official said the regulations are aimed at improving gun safety and are long overdue. And a gun-control advocate doubts they would lead to the demise of events like the Turkey Shoot.

But local gun club members have expressed outrage over the proposals, saying they would make it financially impossible to continue such traditional events.

“That tradition is going to go away because the public is invited to this event,’’ said Jim Finnerty, the Shirley Rod and Gun Club’s only certified firearms safety instructor. Based on the number of people (including children) who turn out for the Turkey Shoot, the club would need to have as many as 60 safety instructors, plus a police detail costing more than $40 per hour, to meet the regulations, he said.

“For a small club like Shirley, it’s tough. It’s not like we have extra money to get police details,’’ Finnerty said.

At the Ayer Gun and Sportsmen’s Club, its annual Military Demonstration Day featuring World War II machine guns, which is scheduled to take place at the end this month, may also cease to exist, said the club’s assistant range officer, Dan Damato. At the club’s event, held to honor veterans, only one person is allowed to shoot the machine gun, while everyone else stands behind, Damato said. But if machine guns are banned from all firearms exhibitions, the tradition will end.

“I think the regulations are unnecessary and they will essentially close down the small clubs,’’ Damato said.

In Hudson, Boy Scout camps, where youths between the ages of 12 and 15 learn to shoot guns at the Riverside Gun Club, will most likely end, said club member Andy Massa. “If the regulations pass, then their activities will become firearms exhibitions and we can’t have them,’’ he said.

The logistics of submitting a safety plan to police 30 days in advance will make it too difficult, he said.

Approximately 150 people attended a public hearing this summer to voice opposition to the proposed regulations, and 51 state legislators signed a letter in opposition. The letter states that the regulations would put a burden on the very organizations that provide firearm safety education. Among the signatures are the names of the two politicians from Westfield, the Western Massachusetts community where last year’s tragedy took place. They did not respond to phone calls asking for comment.

“I understand that there was a tragedy, but the regulations as proposed are very overreaching, and would pretty much shut down any gun course across the state because it would make it cost-prohibitive to run any gun practice or shoot,’’ said state Representative George Peterson, who represents Westborough and Upton and is leading the effort against the regulations.

Peterson also said machine guns should not be prohibited.

“If I own an automatic firearm that I am licensed for, why wouldn’t I be able to use it on a range?’’ he asked. “Fact of the matter is, ninety-nine percent of the time there’s never been a problem.’’

But there have been some problems at other clubs. In September 2005, a man was shot and killed at the Scituate Rod and Gun Club in what authorities ruled was an accident. The club also has been sued by neighbors alleging four bullets from its shooting range have struck nearby houses over the years, a charge the club’s lawyer denies.

Also, an official at the Marshfield Rod & Gun Club confirmed that a man injured his hand at the club when his gun misfired in September 2006.

John Rosenthal, chairman of a Newton-based organization in favor of tighter gun controls, Stop Handgun Violence, said the governor’s new regulations for gun clubs, including prohibiting machine guns from public events, “make perfect sense.’’

“That 8-year-old who was allowed to have an Uzi would be alive today if these regulations were in place,’’ he said.

Rosenthal said he does not buy the argument that gun clubs’ events will go away if the regulations are adopted. The National Rifle Association, he said, has deep pockets to help out with expenses for police details.

“The Turkey Shoot will happen, guaranteed,’’ Rosenthal said. “If the events are popular and worthwhile, they will take place even if it costs a little bit more to ensure safety.’’

If the regulations are adopted, Massachusetts would not be the first state to prohibit machine guns from firearms exhibitions. Indiana, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and Maryland ban them from shooting ranges, said Ben Van Houten, a staff lawyer with a San Francisco-based group, Legal Community Against Violence.

The Patrick administration is reviewing testimony from the public hearing and addressing the concerns of those who are opposed to the regulations, said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Harris said the regulations are not a response to last year’s accident, but a comprehensive package to create a safer environment for those who use guns.

“These were reforms that needed to be made,’’ he said. “They are just overdue.’’