Scott Baldwin and two friends were riding their mountain bikes through the Capitol State Forest near Olympia when they heard bullets whiz by.
The shots were close — only a few yards away, Baldwin said. The three men dove to the ground, throwing their bikes aside, and yelled for the shooter to stop.
“They couldn’t see where we were at, it was too foggy,” said Baldwin, 39, an avid mountain biker from Lacey.
“They had no idea they were shooting over the top of a trail.”
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The March 2016 encounter, captured on video, was the first close call for Baldwin, but not the first time target shooters have come into conflict with other users of state lands.
A review of public records from January 2011 to May 2016 shows that during that time, state officials received more than 300 reports of unsafe, noisy, destructive or illegal target-shooting on lands owned by the state Department of Natural Resources.
No one has been hit, but in 28 of those cases, including Baldwin’s, people described the situations as close calls or near-misses, in which they could hear the bullets cracking through the trees or buzzing in the air nearby.
Eleven times, bullets from target shooters on DNR lands hit or pierced cars, homes and buildings.
My biggest concern is someone is going to get shot out there eventually.
Jim Graham, co-founder of the group Friends of Capitol Forest
In response to those types of incidents, DNR officials are discussing whether to designate target-shooting sites in four popular state forests, while banning target shooting in other parts of those lands.
It’s an approach state officials have discussed in private for several years, but that they’ve never implemented — in part because of worries about political repercussions from gun-rights groups, as well as concerns about the liability associated with concentrating shooting in specific areas.
Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, the statewide elected official who oversees DNR, said he thinks target shooting has become a safety issue the agency must address. However, restricting target shooting on state lands “is a delicate topic,” he said.
“The Second Amendment folks are pretty worked up about their rights, and we respect that,” said Goldmark, a Democrat who isn’t seeking re-election.
“But where their exercise of what they consider their freedom intersects with people’s safety, then that’s when we need to take some respectful, appropriate action, which is what we’re doing.”
GUN GROUPS WARY
This year, DNR held public meetings to discuss whether to establish target shooting areas in Capitol State Forest west of Olympia, the Tahuya State Forest in Mason County, the Harry Osborne State Forest in Skagit County and the Yacolt Burn in Clark County.
Prior to those meetings, the National Rifle Association issued a notice urging its members to attend, warning them that their rights were at risk if they didn’t.
“The ability to target shoot on state lands is being increasingly threatened by the increased use of these lands by non-shooters,” read the notice, posted in May on the website of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
“If non-shooters and anti-gun advocates are the loudest voices next week, these meetings will become the first step in prohibiting shooting on state lands.”
The ability to target shoot on state lands is being increasingly threatened by the increased use of these lands by non-shooters.
The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, on target shooting in Washington state forests
Joe Waldron, legislative chairman for the Washington Rifle and Pistol Association — the NRA state affiliate in Washington — said his group isn’t opposed to DNR creating state-sanctioned shooting ranges.
But he doesn’t want to see DNR establish target-shooting areas while banning the activity in other areas of state lands, a step he said would begin to erode citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms.
“Once they do that, they begin to chip away, and chip away, and chip away,” Waldron said.
“We support the concept of designated shooting areas,” he said. “We just don’t want to do so and lose the freedom to shoot in other safe areas.”
TRAIL USERS, HOMEOWNERS COMPLAIN
While DNR officials have taken steps to ban target shooting in some high-use areas, including popular recreation sites in King and Snohomish counties, shooting is allowed on other DNR lands, including most parts of the four forests where the agency is considering new regulations.
Those forests are among the DNR lands where the most target shooting problems were reported between early 2011 and early 2016, according to documents DNR provided in response to a public records request.
Near the Yacolt Burn, for instance, the Larch Correctional Facility reported being hit at least three times by bullets and had to institute a lockdown twice as a result.
Other complaints have included people shooting into trees without proper earthen backstops, shooting at night, leaving debris behind in the forest, or shooting over roads and trails — all of which state law prohibits.
The Capitol State Forest has been the biggest source of complaints, with more than 70 instances of of unsafe or illegal target shooting reported there by forest users and DNR staff over a five-year period, DNR records show.
That’s not a surprise to Jim Graham, the co-founder of Friends of Capitol Forest, who said he has received complaints about dangerous shooting in the forest at least monthly for the past decade.
My husband was outside and he said, ‘My God, I think a bullet just went by my head.’
Dianne Ludwig, who lives near the Capitol State Forest
Accounts of unsafe shooting in the Capitol State Forest have included complaints from runners who reported gunfire crackling through the trees during a race, a family of hikers who reported a bullet whizzing by the mother’s head, and mountain bikers who said they had to speed up or seek cover to avoid catching a bullet, to name a few.
Graham, an Olympia native and longtime mountain biker, said it’s long past time for DNR to limit shooting in the forest to specific areas, away from other recreationists.
“The fact that no one has been shot out there is an absolute miracle,” Graham said. “My biggest concern is someone is going to get shot out there eventually.”
Nearby homeowners also have complained.
Dianne Ludwig, who lives on Cedar Flats Road on the edge of the Capitol Forest, emailed DNR officials in March 2015 to tell them her neighborhood “sounds like a war zone.” Once, a bullet whizzed by her husband when he was in the yard, she said.
“My husband was outside and he said, ‘My God, I think a bullet just went by my head,’ ” Ludwig recalled.
The noise is the biggest problem for Marshall Oatman, who lives near Triangle Pit, a popular spot for target shooters in the Capitol State Forest. Often, shooters at the gravel pit violate DNR rules that ban shooting after dark, Oatman said.
The sounds of gunfire make it difficult for Oatman to enjoy time outside on his deck or even read a book quietly indoors, he said.
“I’ve seen it go from occasional weekend target shooting to sometimes every day, 12 hours a day,” said Oatman, who has frequently contacted DNR staff to complain.
“I’m a gun owner myself, but it needs to be regulated,” he said.
IDEA IS NOT NEW
State officials had hoped to implement a policy to address target shooting throughout the state three years ago, after several reports of close calls in the forests, DNR records show.
One option under consideration then — like now — was designating specific areas for shooters, away from other forest visitors.
“We recognize that near misses are occurring statewide and that this issue needs to be addressed more comprehensively,” said a 2012 DNR policy document, which set a goal of implementing a policy in mid-2013.
That never happened. A department analysis of the risks of banning target shooting or limiting it to certain areas yields clues as to why.
“National gun debate has created a highly polarized external political environment … (that) could lead to a loss of focus on the specific issue of shooting and safety on state lands,” reads part of a risk analysis document circulated among DNR officials in 2013.
The document notes the “opportunity to endure substantial public bruising while not meaningfully addressing risk factors.”
Costs and staffing were other barriers, DNR documents show. Statewide, only a handful of DNR enforcement personnel patrol the agency’s lands at any given time, and developing formal ranges or shooting areas could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per site, according to emails shared between DNR officials.
Concentrating shooting in particular areas also would increase DNR’s obligation to clean up pollution from lead bullets, while opening up the agency to legal liability for shooting accidents that might occur, said Brock Milliern, who oversees the DNR division that includes outdoor recreation.
“When you designate an area, in a lot of ways you’re telling people that’s the safe and right place to shoot. And so you have taken on more of the liability,” Milliern said.
Yet DNR’s research indicated that of 28 states surveyed, only 12 of them had a similar policy of allowing dispersed shooting on their public lands.
Government wheels should turn much quicker than this.
State Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, on DNR taking years to develop target-shooting policies
State Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from Potlatch who caucuses with Senate Republicans, said he thinks DNR is just making excuses for years of inaction. He blamed top-heavy bureaucracy for the delays and called the agency’s fear of gun-rights groups “ridiculous.”
“Government wheels should turn much quicker than this,” said Sheldon, who is an NRA member.
Others point to failed gun-control efforts in the Legislature as evidence of the power that the NRA and other gun-rights groups hold in Washington.
“If you go back and look at any bill related to gun violence that has actually passed … not a single bill that the gun lobby is opposed to has gone to the governor’s desk,” said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat who chairs the House committee that considers gun control legislation.
Jinkins said Washington politicians remain keenly aware of the NRA-backed campaign in 2013 that successfully recalled two Colorado lawmakers who supported gun control measures.
“I think really they’ve been highly successful at saying, ‘Look at what we did in Colorado. That’s what we’ll do to you,’ ” Jinkins said.
SOME SHOOTERS SUPPORTIVE
To address shooting concerns in the short-term, DNR officials established no-shooting corridors along busy roads in the Capitol Forest and in the Yacolt Burn, and put up “No Shooting” signs in some areas where they received complaints, including in many parts of the Tahuya Forest.
Often, though, labeling certain areas as “No Shooting” seemed to just push target shooters into other areas, or the signs were ignored, emails between DNR staffers indicate.
Waldron, the legislative chairman for the Washington Rifle and Pistol Association, said some people are going to break the rules no matter what DNR officials do. Responsible gun owners shouldn’t have their rights infringed as a result of a few “bad apples,” he said.
Yet other shooters say the designated shooting areas could help gun owners find safe places to use their firearms, something they say has become more and more difficult as the state’s population has grown and more people visit the forests.
“We’re a legitimate user group, and in essence we’ve been excluded from carrying out our recreational sport,” said Mel Armstrong, who wants to see DNR create specialized areas for shooters.
We haven’t had an accident as far as I’ve heard — but all it takes is one.
Dan Solie, co-owner of the online community Waguns.org, who supports the creation of designated shooting areas in state forests
Armstrong, who lives on the edge of the Tahuya Forest, said he’s seen safe shooting spots in the forest vanish in recent years as the area has become increasingly popular with off-road vehicle users and dirt bikers.
Dan Solie, the co-owner of the online community Waguns.org, said he also thinks designated shooting areas could be a good thing.
“I think it would be a lot better than allowing a free-for-all on the roads,” Solie said.
“We haven’t had an accident as far as I’ve heard — but all it takes is one.”
DNR officials say they will continue discussing whether to create designated shooting areas over the next six months.
Should they decide to go forward, they probably will first identify a shooting site in the Tahuya State Forest, where Armstrong and other local gun owners have offered strong support.
Gathering enough support to create specialized shooting areas in the Capitol Forest and the other two forests may take more time, Milliern said. So will securing money from the Legislature to build the ranges, he said.
Baldwin, the Lacey resident who encountered gunfire during his bike ride earlier this year, said his close call with shooters hasn’t kept him from hitting the trails in the Capitol Forest.
Still, he said he thinks state officials should work to ensure a more serious incident doesn’t occur. Designating shooting areas would be a good place to start, he said.
“Hopefully, it’s something they can get going sooner rather than later,” Baldwin said.