SEABROOK — In New Hampshire, hunting is a way of life and an important part of the state culture, but liability and safety concerns have Seabrook selectmen pondering if, or how best, they can reopen the town's popular shooting range.
Actually located just over the border in Kensington on land Seabrook owns, the range is within the town's well fields and water protection area on the west side of town off Route 107. Open for decades, the firing range has been closed for the most part over the past two years while Seabrook's new water treatment plant was built, open only on the weekends by special arrangement. Prior to its closing, however, the range was well used, not only by hunters for practice and to sight their guns each season, but by area police departments to ensure they meet firearms qualifications, as well as by military reservists and gun enthusiasts.
With the construction of the water treatment plant complete, selectmen have been peppered with requests to open the shooting range. The town hired a consultant to advise on the issue. At their recent meeting, selectmen heard from engineer Adam Last, of Corporate Environmental Advisors.
Last said that although most of the spent ammunition left behind by shooters is mostly made of lead, there is not a likely probability that the lead and arsenic contained in the bullets and skeet shot will be dissolved by moisture or rain and filter down into the groundwater, polluting the town's drinking water. However, Last said, there are a number of issues that should be addressed to ensure safety.
Last found that a network of off-road vehicle trails exists in the area, whose riders regularly crisscross the well fields and shooting range. Keeping riders away from the well fields has been a problem for the town for years, but since the range has been closed, riders have increased their activity with no one to stop them.
In addition, Last said, locked gates meant to control use of the range are not being utilized. Prior to the range's closing, gates were locked and the keys kept by the Police Department. Shooters had to sign out the keys and sign waivers that they used the range at their own risk. However, there are indications that some shooters walked into the range through the woods, bypassing the gates, without touching base with police.
Moreover, there is no written Best Practices Management Plan for the shooting range, and no supervision at the range while in use. Both of those items would increase the safety of shooters and others, Last said.
Before opening the range again, Last told selectmen these issues should be addressed to protect the public's safety and the town's liability.
It was the town's exposure to liability that concerned Town Manager Barry Brenner when he advised selectmen to consider carefully all the risks before reopening the range.
"It's a liability and a significant liability for the town," Brenner said. "You can't waive your right to sue by signing a piece of paper. If someone shoots themselves or someone else, they'll sue the town of Seabrook. It will be a multimillion dollar lawsuit. (The selectmen) will be sued, and the taxpayers will be sued."
Brenner said that even while the range has been closed, special arrangements allowed the organizers of the town's annual hunter safety course to use the range on weekends. The use was approved because those sessions were well supervised and the safe use of weapons was stressed, Brenner said. Those two issues, supervision and the stress on gun safety, are paramount factors in lessening the town's liability, he said.
Ed Bergeron told selectmen he and others have used the range for decades without any major problem, injury or legal battles. There were concerns over off-road vehicle riders in the past, but after he and police officials spoke to riders and their parents, they stayed away from the shooting range. That would have to happen again, Bergeron said.
And admitting there have been some "bad apples" who use the range carelessly, Bergeron said, "There are bad apples in all of society. Do you punish everyone for one or two bad apples?"
But it was resident Jason Janvrin who suggested a course to follow before making their final decisions. Janvrin proposed creating a study committee — made up of shooters, police and other town officials — to get all the facts to find out what's needed to have a safe shooting range. Janvrin offered creating a nonprofit corporation to lease the land from the town for a minimal amount, with volunteers improving the range and providing supervision and safety requirements.
Agreeing safety is the most important factor, Selectmen Bob Moore and Brendan Kelly tabled the issue, taking it under advisement until the next meeting, when Selectman Aboul Khan would be present, and they can decide how to proceed.