Oxford rifle range use policy in dispute
By ERROL CASTENS | Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal | Published: October 14, 2012
OXFORD - An Oxford attorney is seeking to enforce what he says is a mandate that federally funded rifle ranges be open to civilian use.
Reed Martz says that since 2009 officials have denied his requests to use the rifle range in the Patricia C. Lamar National Guard Readiness Center in Oxford.
United States Code amp§4039 states in part that "All rifle ranges constructed in whole or in part with funds provided by the United States may be used by members of the armed forces and by persons capable of bearing arms."
"What began as typical bureaucratic foot-dragging has progressed to outright disobedience and disparate treatment of a disfavored individual for reasons upon which we can only speculate," Martz said.
Oxford and university officials indicated the decision largely falls to the Guard. Lt. Col. Tim Powell (Retired), public affairs officer for the Mississippi National Guard, said civilian use of the rifle range conflicts with the military's emphasis on force protection, adding that not even Guard members are allowed to carry personal weapons into the building.
"Are we supposed to lower our force protection so John Q. Civilian can come in?" Powell said. "We've had no requests to do this before, because the general public has passed the common-sense test, and now someone has not."
Martz notes the Guard already allows civilian use. The University of Mississippi's varsity rifle team uses the facility in exchange for a $500,000 contribution from the Ole Miss Loyalty Foundation.
"That is a cooperative agreement between the federal government and the university," Powell said. Rifle team members "are trained in marksmanship. They are trained in safety procedures. ... They clean up after themselves, and they pay to play."
He said public use would require extra manpower to do background checks on individuals and their weapons and to oversee actual use. It also would introduce liability insurance issues, he said, and require medical response capabilities.
The Ole Miss Gun Safety Club and 4-H youths have also held firearms safety courses on the range, but Powell said those events violated the use agreement.
"There was a break in protocol in the use of the range," he said. "That was dealt with, and it will not happen again."
Guard officials hold that the law makes granting civilian use optional for military authorities.
"This statute does not create an entitlement, but when passed, allowed the military to lawfully give permission for civilians to fire on military ranges," Powell said. Citing U.S.C. amp§ 101 (f), which deals with military training requirements, he said the "may" is used in the permissive sense.
Martz said he has offered solutions to the government's initial objections by offering to sign a release of liability, paying the cost of a certified safety officer and even limiting his use to .22-caliber ammunition. He also contends that the permissive sense of the statute gives the option to individuals, not military officials.
"The statute says that any qualifying range 'may be used ... by persons capable of bearing arms,'" Martz said. "The language makes clear who is empowered, i.e., the 'persons.'
"Leaving aside the 'may' language, the Guard still has not explained why school children, college students, and college athletes were and/or are allowed to use the range while other similarly situated persons and groups are denied use based upon specious concerns," he said. "The government should not be allowed to show favoritism in who uses public facilities."
Powell said Mississippi Adjutant General Augustus Collins will make a decision on the issue "sometime very, very soon."