Long shadows stretched across the gravel as four men formed a row. A haze of smoke hung in the air as loud bangs filled the evening, followed by pops and metallic pings.
The reverberations weren’t the sounds of exploding fireworks but the shots of reserve officers with the Columbia Police Department practicing their shooting skills at the Green Valley Rifle and Pistol Club.
The private gun club is the current training place for city police, but they soon could have their own 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot facility, complete with an outdoor firing range, a classroom, an armory, men’s and women’s locker rooms, offices, a reception area and extra parking for official vehicles.
The expected bill for the training center will be around $1 million, and it will be financed by a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in November 2005. The department currently pays $6,500 per year to use the Green Valley range.
But obstacles remain. Columbia police Capt. Mike Martin said the department is looking at 21 acres of land on city-owned property off Boatman Hill Road south of McGee Road, but residents of the area aren’t too excited about having a shooting range so close by. With that in mind, representatives of the police department plan to meet with neighbors at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the National Guard Armory, 5151 Roger I. Wilson Memorial Drive. If they can win the residents’ support, they’ll ask the Boone County Commission to rezone the land to accommodate the training facility.
“We want to get a read from them, whether they accept us being there, and then we’ll move forward,” Martin said. “We want to take away questions, rumors and concerns that come with projects that are close to people’s homes. We want to build a relationship with these people, who we hope to be our neighbors.”
Jenifer Westgate’s family has owned land off McGee Road for 45 years.
“The land is so special, because I’m the baby of the family, and when each of us got married my parents gave each kid seven acres,” Westgate said. “My mother and father, my best friend, my daughter and her baby, my whole family is out here. It’s just perfect.”
Although a majority of the shooting would occur between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., the department requires night qualifications for each of its officers. Generally it takes three days to complete the process, Martin said, and shooting stops before 10 p.m.
Westgate said the new range would ruin her rural lifestyle.
“It would disrupt everything,” she said. “Our peaceful life we have found, there’s nothing like it. And that’s why we live here.”
Westgate said her first reaction when she heard about plans for the range was disbelief.
“I heard about it, and I thought somebody was mistaken,” she said. “I’m very upset about it. Everyone I have talked to is very upset. There are other spots available or other shooting ranges. They could contract with those on occasion. There’s no need for another shooting range. There’s one two miles up the road.”
Westgate plans to ask the city a few questions at the meeting.
“Why do you need another shooting range this close together?” she said. “There are a zillion other places you could put it, other land that they own. Why ruin the north part now? I don’t see any positives for it, none.”
Martin said the tract of land is a strip-mining site and has landscaping features that will help reduce the cost of building berms for a firing range.
The cost of using the Green Valley shooting range has steadily risen since the department began using the facility in 2000. But more important, Martin said, a firing range owned by the department would offer it more control, specifically in scheduling.
“Ownership, control and upkeep come into play,” Martin said. “It’s kind of like having your own house. You can make sure your lawn is mowed.”
“It’s a nice facility. We can’t complain,” Martin said of the Green Valley range. “The problem is that it’s a private gun club. We can’t control the scheduling. There’s three ranges there, and we don’t know who’s on the others. It’s not officers.”
Ben White, a retired detective and a reserve officer who sometimes coordinates firearms training, said scheduling is a big justification for a new facility.
“I think that I am running a range, and then when I pull up there are 50 people out here. It’s happened before,” White said. “Plus, at the new facility we’re going to have driving and shooting simulations, not just hand-to-hand.”
Reserve officer Jason Goran agreed the new facility would give officers more experience.
“We’ll still have to shoot outside, we’ll just have better control, and we can get our briefing before we go out and shoot,” he said. “When you get in a controlled environment you can do a lot.”