While the renewed arguments over gun control have focused on the use of firearms in violent crime, many gun owners are more like Judy Hughes of Raleigh.
All she expects to kill with her guns is time.
For more than a decade, Hughes has been a regular at several local shooting clubs and ranges, where she has developed considerable skill shooting still and moving targets with pistols and shotguns. Just as she might like to swing a golf club or a tennis racket, Hughes and countless thousands in and around the Triangle like firing at clay disks and metal silhouettes. The only difference, they say, is that the tools of their sport are potentially lethal devices whose ownership is protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
People such as Hughes practice their skills in the midst of a high-intensity national debate on gun control that has many shooters afraid that the government will eventually take away their sporting firearms. Even strict gun-control advocates say that’s not the goal, but the perceived threat is in the background every time recreational shooters go to the range.
“There is such camaraderie, just like in any other sport,” Hughes said. “There is the enjoyment in being in the out of doors. There’s the challenge. And I enjoy the success that comes from being able to break one of those clay pigeons or hit a bulls-eye on a paper target.
“The first day I tried it, I was able to hit the targets,” Hughes said. “I didn’t hit every single one of them, but I hit enough of those targets to say, ‘Wow. This is fun.’ ”
‘Clays’ instead of animals
One of the places Hughes likes to shoot is at Deep River Sporting Clays and Shooting School just north of Sanford. Mary and Bill Kempffer stared the business in 1989 on 65 acres of pine timberland. Bill Kempffer, who was working at a brokerage at the time, saw something called “sporting clays” had begun to take the place of game hunting in Great Britain.
The Kempffers started with a clubhouse and a 1.25-mile course through the woods with 13 stations. Shooters stop at the stations and try to hit clay discs being fired across clearings at various speeds and trajectories.
Doctors, lawyers, active-duty and retired soldiers, college students and corporate groups on team-building exercises come from Raleigh, Cary, Apex, Pinehurst and elsewhere to play the course, usually in groups of two to six people. It takes about an hour and a half to go all the way around. Safety is constantly stressed.
There’s also trap shooting and a pistol-shooting range, as well as safety and shooting courses taught by certified instructors, and a pro shop offering outdoor clothing and firearms.
Bill Kempffer grew up in South Carolina and Missouri and learned to handle guns as a young boy hunting and shooting clay with his father. Mary came to the sport later in life. Both left successful jobs to start the seven-day-a-week business, which they saw as both an opportunity both for self-employment and a form of ministry.
“From the start, we saw this as family entertainment, something kids and their parents can do together,” said Bill Kempffer. “What we offer is an opportunity to be outside, to exercise and to socialize. And it’s a sport that anyone can do. We offer a Carolina outdoor experience.”
Ranges across the state
There are nearly 100 shooting ranges across the state, most of them privately owned, according to a list on the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s website. In Wake, Durham, Harnett, Lee, Cumberland, Granville and Franklin counties, shooters have their choice of at least 14 facilities. Some charge membership fees and annual dues, while others charge by activity or event. Some rent firearms for use on the range or course; others require shooters to bring their own.
Shooters can be as casual or as competitive as they want. While some don’t keep score, others join national shooting associations and attend matches where their scores are tracked and reported for comparison as shooters work their way up from novice to marksman to sharpshooter, expert, master and distinguished master.
“I’m an expert in one gun and a sharpshooter in some others,” said Franklin Glover, a former police officer who started The Range in Oxford because he and some friends who competed needed another place to shoot.
Now, he runs training sessions for law enforcement officers, and he’s got a match of some type just about every weekend. He just finished the Zombie Shooters Association of America’s All Gun Match.
The founding Zombie Shooter
John Zaczek, a Marine Corps veteran who started the Zombie Shooters Association with his wife two years ago, says shooting sports are egalitarian events where novices can shoot alongside skilled marksmen.
“Some of the best shooters in the country are right here in the Triangle area,” Zaczek said. “In golf, you’re not going to go out and play 18 holes with Tiger Woods. In our sport, any first-time shooter can go out and be shooting side-by-side with a nationally ranked shooter.
“There is no gender bias in shooting sports. There is no racism here. There are no drugs here; there is no alcohol. Everyone is polite. We’re the good guys.”
Politically, Zaczek said, shooters lean to the right, but he has liberal-leaning friends who enjoy taking aim at a target, too.
Glover, the range owner, said he’d be most accurately described as a Libertarian, but he aligns with conservatives on the issue of gun ownership.
“I think you ought to get a gun issued along with your birth certificate,” Glover said. “But I also think you ought to learn how to use it,” by taking classes and practicing.
Like others, Glover said, he believes there are those who would like to see all private gun ownership banned, even those used only for shooting sports or hunting. However, most gun-control advocates say that’s not necessary or even desirable.
‘Thriving on fear’
“The gun lobby thrives on that fear,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, based in Washington. “If they didn’t spread that untrue rumor, you wouldn’t have the polarized debates we have right now. The irrational fear that someone is trying to take your guns away prevents this country from doing things that would make it a lot safer.”
The place to start, he says, is with better background checks and a penalty for selling guns without the check. That would make it more difficult for criminals and others who shouldn’t have access to guns to get them, Horwitz says.
Those who do own guns legally, Horwitz said, and take them to shooting ranges, are not a problem whatsoever.
“That’s the exact right place to be using firearms,” he said. “If you’re a legitimate sportsman, a target shooter, that kind of activity is completely legitimate.”
Ranges are not universally welcome; some of Dan Andrews’ Harnett County neighbors complained recently about the noise from his Drake Landing, but county officials said last week the operation meets local zoning requirements.
Andrews, who grew up farming, started leading tobacco buyers and chemical company executives on hunts on his family’s property when he was a teenager. In the 1990s, he opened a preserve for family and friends and in 2004, he opened to the public for guided bird hunts and a sporting clays trail. To rent a golf cart for the 2-mile course and shoot 50 rounds at 13 stations costs $35.
He hears politicians argue about whether to ban semi-automatic rifles like the ones he uses to hunt deer. He also hears his customers talk about hoarding the types of guns and ammunition they think the government may try to prohibit.
Even if all they ever plan to do with those weapons is bring them to a place like his and make a lot of noise shattering orange clay discs, they believe they are entitled to do so.
“People are so busy, with time constraints and long hours and sitting in traffic,” Andrews said. “They can come out here and it’s just relaxing to them.
“Every year, there’s more people interested in it.”