February 04, 2020

Florida’s Shooting Ranges: A Lapse in Regulation Raises Environmental Concerns

Kimberli Quintero

The consequences of an unregulated shooting range industry stretch well beyond the current apprehensions relating to gun safety. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that much of the 80,000 tons of lead made into bullets each year “finds its way into the environment at [shooting] ranges.” While lead is the primary contaminant, shooting ranges also produce high levels of copper, zinc, and antimony. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention determined that shooting firearms is the most common nonoccupational exposure to lead. The accumulation of lead in the human body can have detrimental effects—in adults, it can lead to high blood pressure, memory loss, birth defects, and decline in mental abilities. For children, it can halt development, cause damage to the brain and nervous system, induce behavioral problems, contribute to headaches and blood disorders, and impair vision and motor skills. Even the main advocates of an unregulated firearm industry, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), agree that the lead exposure from shooting ranges poses a substantial health threat.

While these statistics are alarming, there is an even more imminent threat, specifically affecting Florida’s ecosystem—water contamination. In Florida alone, there are over 400 public and private shooting ranges. While some of the lead retained in outdoor shooting ranges stays in the soil, the remainder travels to groundwater and surface water. When rainfall reaches the Earth's surface, one of three events occur, it can (1) enter the ground (infiltration); (2) collect into surface streams and lakes (runoff); or (3) return to the atmosphere as water vapor (evapotranspiration). The water that enters the ground (groundwater) then seeps “downward until it encounters a zone where the pores in the soil or rocks are saturated (aquifers).” The St. Johns Water Management District has reported that “more than 90 percent of people in Northeast and East-Central Florida use aquifers for their water supply.” According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s page on Lead Management at Florida Shooting Ranges, “Florida depends on groundwater for its drinking water supply, and on surface water for the outdoor recreation industry. High rainfall and acidic conditions, typical in Florida, cause lead to be more mobile in the environment.”

These concerns beg the question—what has the Florida legislature done to ensure shooting ranges are properly disposing contaminants? In 2004, The Florida legislature passed Fla. Stat. 376.302, which made it illegal to “discharge pollutants or hazardous substances into or upon the surface or groundwaters of the states or lands.” That same year however, Florida passed Fla. Stat. 790.333, preempting the regulation of projectile deposition at sport shooting and training ranges. This preemption is enforced through both civil and criminal penalties, whereby any “person, county, agency, municipality, district or other entity that violated the Legislature’s occupation of the whole field of regulation of firearms and ammunitions” shall be held liable, and potentially face a $5,000 fine or a first-degree misdemeanor. In addition to preempting this field, Fla. Stat. 790.333 supersedes any conflicting provisions in Chapter 376, effectively making it impossible to institute government oversight in the environmental practices of shooting ranges.

Fla. Stat. 790.333 does require shooting range owners to implement situation appropriate environmental management practices but these provisions ultimately fall short. First, Fla. Stat. 790.333 requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) make a “good faith effort” to provide shooting range operators with copies of the Best Management Practices for Environmental Stewardship of Florida Shooting Ranges (Best Management Practices) and provide assistance with implementation of environmental management practices, if an owner requests assistance. Fla. Stat. 790.333 provides a two-year buffer from the date of its enactment, by which the shooting range owners must have implemented “appropriate environmental practices,” without defining what that means. Do the appropriate environmental management practices have to coincide with the Florida Best Management Practices? Or can the management practices be based on the shooting range owner’s sole discretion? If implemented, the Best Management Practices would effectively reduce or eliminate the lead contamination produced by shooting ranges. The operative word, being “if.” There is no provision requiring shooting ranges to abide by the Best Management Practices. Furthermore, it is unclear what body is in charge of cleaning up contamination, should the Best Management Practices fail.

Fla. Stat. 790.333 also provides that if contamination is suspected or identified by any “owner, operator, tenant, or occupant of sport shooting or training ranges,” that individual may request assistance from the FDEP. Once again, the statute expects an individual to voluntarily seek help for a contamination but there is no requirement to do so. Lastly, the statute states that if the department confirms there is a contamination, the FDEP will create and provide a risk-based corrective action (RBCA), but it is ultimately up to the shooting range owner to implement the action plan, with or without the help of the FDEP. Fla. Stat. 790.333(e) does not require the owner to implement the RBCA.

What happens if a government agency (either state or local) pursues legal action relating to “the use, release, placement, deposition, or accumulation of any projectile in the environment?” If you are the shooting range owner or operator, nothing. The statute provides owners with immunity from suit, so long as they made a good faith effort to comply with the action plan. Unfortunately, good faith effort is not explained further. Although 790.333 has not been challenged in court, both the Florida Attorney General’s Office and the Florida courts have given significant deference to the state in regulating the gun industry. Furthermore, the fear of being penalized will inevitably prevent local legislators from fully working on behalf of their constituents to address a problem that the state has overlooked. Regardless of whether a court determines that a locality’s actions were preempted, local lawmakers might never even take the initial step of proposing new regulations for shooting range practices, simply to avoid being held liable. Ultimately, the Florida legislature should consider amending Fla. Stat. 790.333 by removing the preemption and penalty clauses and allowing local governments to determine how shooting ranges dispose of hazardous waste, or at the very least, it should provide clarity to the statute’s many ambiguities.

    Kimberli Quintero

    Kimberli Quintero is a third-year law student at Stetson University College of Law, where she is an associate of Stetson Law Review, senior research editor for the Journal of Comparative and International Aging Law & Policy, and a member of Student Bar Association’s Environmental Committee. She is currently a Law Clerk at Rahdert & Mortimer in St. Petersburg, Florida.