A view down the pistol range at Outdoor Addicts shows berms in place to stop bullets. Roger Nomer photo.

Last spring, two children were playing on a swing set outside their homes when a bullet struck the wooden frame 2 feet above their heads.

Allie Butler, 11, had no idea where the bullet came from and ran inside, terrified.

Now, roughly 10 months after a recreational gun range was built near her rural Jasper County home, she says the threat of stray bullets is a fact of life.

“It’s boring now,” she said. “We can’t play outside anymore.”

In August, her parents reported finding two more bullets on their property, including one stuck in the side of their house. Their neighbors have lodged similar complaints. As recently as Nov. 26, a neighbor called sheriff’s deputies after discovering a hollow-tipped rifle round lodged in an air conditioning unit outside his house.

The stray bullets are pitting a group of Jasper County residents — many of them gun owners themselves — against the owner of a firing range in an unusual gun rights debate.

The homeowners say they are under siege, unable to use their property while the range operates, but their appeals to the courts and to government officials have so far been unsuccessful, stymied by a state statute designed to protect gun ranges and by the county’s lack of zoning rules.

Meanwhile, John T. Block, owner of Outdoor Addicts Gun Range, denies that the bullets are coming from the range at all.

His neighbors say they don’t want the gun range shut down. Still, they wonder if anything will be done before someone gets hurt.

“Every time you hear a shot — and there are a lot of them now — you wonder if it’s the one,” said Billy Butler, Allie Butler’s father.

Seven rounds

Since Outdoor Addicts Gun Range opened at 23321 Missouri Highway 96 in January, seven rounds have struck five houses within less than a mile of the range, according to reports filed with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office. A retired couple found a bullet lodged in the wall behind their patio. A widow discovered a bullet in her bathtub after it pierced the east-facing wall of her rural home.

“We’ve been living here 10 years. … Nobody had bullets in their houses (before the gun range was built),” said Marti Hamby, whose home was struck by a bullet in July.

Gun enthusiasts can shoot pistols and rifles at Outdoor Addicts — the pistol range faces west, the rifle range to the north. The houses that have been struck by bullets stand roughly in line with the two firing directions, though deputies have never conclusively traced a bullet to the range.

“We can’t even go out and mow our damn lawns,” said Shannon Rainey, who said his daughter was on the swing set when it was hit by a bullet.

But a circuit judge, a county commissioner, the county prosecutor and the state representative for the area have all said there is nothing to be done when bullets fly off a Missouri gun range and into a neighboring backyard.

‘Political issue’

The range’s neighbors, most of whom self-identify as supporters of the Second Amendment, say they suspect that local politicians are reluctant to touch an issue that could be perceived as regulating guns.

“Because of the trend in gun rights, they think this is all a political issue,” said Rainey, “but for us, there ain’t nothing political about this. This is our lives.”

Local officials, for their part, say their hands are tied by a gun-friendly state law and by hostility to government intervention that has killed repeated bids for zoning regulations in Jasper County.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said John Bartosh, presiding commissioner for the county.

In order to regulate gun ranges in the county — by requiring, for instance, protective berms built to a certain height — commissioners say they would need to first pass a Planning and Zoning Code, which has repeatedly failed to gain political support from county voters. Bartosh says zoning is unpopular “because most people who live out in the country don’t want government telling them where they can build.”

Outdoor Addicts increased the height of a protective berm after sheriff’s deputies visited the range in the spring, though most of the bullet strikes have occurred since then. Metal baffles — awning-like structures designed to prevent bullets from flying over the berm — also have been installed.

Sheriff Randee Kaiser says the homeowners have “a legitimate concern.” He has personally visited the range more than once. During his most recent trip in September, he says he saw a bullet hole in a metal baffle designed to keep bullets from shooting over the backstop.

“It’s not like you were shooting in an area where there’s nothing beyond you,” Kaiser said, adding, “We’re all kind of flummoxed by it.”

The county’s top law enforcement official, Prosecutor Theresa Kenney, says the state’s criminal code offers no easy fix. Arresting a recreational shooter at the range would be extremely difficult, she said, because the range is not required to keep records of who is shooting what gun and because most of the bullets were discovered after they hit.

“I have to prove that someone intentionally or recklessly shot someone,” Kenney said. “I don’t know how I would ascertain who shot the bullet.”

State law

Moving out isn’t an option for the homeowners, they say.

“Our property values have tanked,” said Amy DeArmond, who lives between two houses that were struck by bullets.

What’s more, some said they wouldn’t feel right putting another family in harm’s way by selling their homes.

Another would-be solution — state regulation — seems unlikely. The only state law that discusses gun ranges was written not to establish safety standards but to make gun ranges more difficult to sue.

That’s the way it should be, says Cody Smith, a Republican who represents the homeowners and Outdoor Addicts in the state Legislature.

“When you get into legislative prescriptions such as berm height or proximity, that inevitably is going to infringe on the rights of someone who does it in a safe way and has done it in a safe way for hundreds of years under Second Amendment protections,” he said.

Safety measures

Block, the owner of Outdoor Addicts, says he is one of those safe operators.

A recreational hunter who ran a tanning salon in Webb City, Block opened the hunting shop and shooting range on nearly 100 acres of rural land west of Oronogo.

He says people have always taken target practice on the open land around his property, and they didn’t stop after the range was built. He insists that none of the bullets discovered on his neighbors’ property were shot by his clients.

Still, after being told by a sheriff’s deputy in March that the range backstop was too low, Block says he spent thousands of dollars to pile additional dirt on the backstop and to install structures designed to contain errant bullets.

“I have kids. I don’t want anyone worried,” Block said, “I’ve put safety measures in place.”

Those measures include a list of range rules that clients must sign before they shoot, and an employee is assigned to police the range when people are shooting.

Block estimates that by publicizing their complaints online and in the media, his neighbors have cost him half his business and says he plans to counter-sue them to recover his losses.

Plain language

So far, the courts have been on his side.

In an August ruling, Judge Dean Dankelson struck down the homeowners’ request for a temporary restraining order against Outdoor Addicts, pointing to the Missouri Supreme Court’s reading of a state law that gives gun ranges immunity from some legal complaints.

The law focuses mostly on noise complaints, but a single sentence toward the bottom appears to go further, giving gun ranges immunity from any court action based on a nuisance or trespass — not just from noise complaints.

In 2011, after a homeowner, Kate Goerlitz, of Nodaway County, complained that bullets were ricocheting from a nearby gun range operated by the city of Maryville that was next to her home, and that the bullets were landing in her yard, the Missouri Supreme Court accepted this broader interpretation of the law.

Pointing to the “plain language” of the statute, the judges dismissed the complaint.

Goerlitz failed to prove that bullets ricocheted from the range onto her property, wrote Judge Zel M. Fisher — but even if she had succeeded, she wouldn’t have a case against the range. He wrote that the law also protected gun ranges from trespass complaints, which he defined as “physical interference” with another person’s property, including, apparently, shooting bullets at it.

In a separate opinion, another Supreme Court judge took a narrower reading. Though she recognized that the homeowner’s case was invalid, Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote that state law only protects gun ranges against noise complaints.

“If the statute were read as the city suggests,” she wrote, “a court would be helpless to stop a person from purposely firing shots from the range at people outside the range; such a person repeatedly could endanger others, and until someone actually was hit, a court could not enjoin the conduct.”

But that’s just the interpretation Dankelson seemed to take when he dismissed the neighbors’ request for a preliminary restraining order. He made his decision, pointing to the Goerlitz case, before Block’s lawyers could file an argument.

‘Do you know who I am?’

In 2009, working alongside Missouri’s gun lobby, Kevin Jamison helped modify the state’s gun range law. Ranges across Missouri had been hit with a series of noise complaints that led to hefty civil penalties for disturbing the peace.

Gun advocates suspected that the complaints were part of a coordinated move against gun ranges, and Jamison, an attorney on the board of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, helped push back. A self-described “gun nut,” he is now president of three separate gun organizations. His legal practice has defended people accused of committing crimes with guns, as well as several gun ranges.

So Jamison was surprised to receive a call this year from a group of homeowners in Jasper County asking for his help in a case against a range.

“I had several conversations with my clients beforehand, saying, ‘Do you know who I am?” said Jamison. “They wanted a gun guy to represent them in this case.”

As it turns out, the neighbors don’t want Outdoor Addicts to shut down. A few have been customers at the gun store there. They also say they don’t mind the sound of gunfire, which is audible whenever the range is open.

“We’re all gun owners. We all hunt and shoot. But we don’t want to be shot at,” DeArmond said.

Their lawsuit against the range, filed in August, does not seek monetary damages, instead asking the court to close down the gun range until extra safety measures are put in place.

Jamison says he is confident that the law he helped pass is now on his side.

“In this case, it’s not a noise complaint, it’s a bullet complaint,” he said.

Jamison and his clients flatly dismiss the idea that the bullets have come from anywhere except Outdoor Addicts.

“The bullets’ trajectory is in the direction of the range,” he said. “Two plus two.”

‘I don’t feel safe’

The first Saturday in December was unseasonably warm, and a drumbeat of gunfire at Outdoor Addicts made its way onto Marti Hamby’s patio, a small concrete slab furnished with a table and chairs. She pointed to a hole roughly the width of a .22-caliber bullet in the siding, just behind one of the chairs. The wall faces east, toward the pistol range.

“I don’t feel safe out here,” she said, walking back inside.

Last year, Hamby took a daylong gun safety course and obtained a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Such permits are no longer necessary, but Hamby said she doesn’t feel like celebrating.

“Because of all this, I haven’t picked up a gun,” she said.

NRA help

The National Rifle Association said it provides ranges all over the country with procedural, safety and design evaluations and offers educational services from range development and operations conferences to online courses.

The NRA Range Technical Team is a nationwide network of volunteers trained in the field of shooting range development, design and operations.

By Koby Levin | Joplin Globe