Randy Bragge stood smiling at the far end of the firing line at the Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club as men and women along the line prepared for a “liberty volley,” a minute-long shootout.
Bragge set up his gun, a LAR Grizzly BIG boar .50 cal. BMG rifle, and cautioned a few spectators not to stand too close.
“Don’t stand near the shock waves,” Bragge said of the gasses that escape the flash suppressor at the barrel tip of the gigantic rifle.
Bragge was part of the Kitsap Rifle and Revolver Club’s annual Fourth of July celebration. The celebration, attended by 40 to 50 KRRC members, featured a membership potluck, the hoisting of two new large flags up the club’s flagpole, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, the liberty volley and other events.
Typically, the Fourth of July celebration has been one of the more popular events. But after two years of decreased membership and consistent problems with the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office and surrounding neighborhoods, attendance at the Fourth of July Celebration has taken a dip, said Marcus Carter, the club’s executive officer.
“We’ve had more participation in years past,” Carter said.
To a large degree, the rifle club’s problem is that members don’t know the club has reopened. The 72-acre club located on Seabeck Highway NW, a few miles outside Bremerton’s city limits, was shut down Feb. 9 after Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Serko ruled the club was a public nuisance and ordered the club to cease shooting until a conditional use permit was issued.
The suit against the gun club was first brought by Kitsap County Prosecutor Russell Hauge in September 2010, after complaints of noise and unsafe conditions were levied by Central Kitsap Safe and Quiet, a local neighborhood group, Carter said. What followed was a lengthy legal battle that included injunctions, appeals, stays and every form of legal maneuvering under the sun, said Carter.
Since 2010, membership was charged a $100 legal levy on top of the $60 per calendar year the club charges, Carter said, and numbers that were once as high as 1,200 in 2010 have since dropped to around 600, Carter said.
“We’ve lost 25 percent of our membership each year,” Carter said.
Hauge disagrees with Carter’s interpretation of the legal proceedings. The litigation started in 2010 when the gun club performed building and ground work that was not authorized by the county, he said.
“It’s straightforward,” Hauge said. “When you remodel your house you have to get a building permit. The club decided it didn’t have to do that.”
In late April, Washington State Court of Appeals Court Commissioner Eric Schmidt issued a conditional stay, ruling that harm to the club from closing the range outweighed noise and other problems in surrounding communities. The club reopened, under conditions of restricted hours, no automatic weapons and no cannons be fired, except for on the Fourth of July.
Hauge said a stay is typically issued in appeal proceedings, but that the commissioner’s stay did not “provide protections to surrounding neighbors and to the county.” Hauge’s office has since filed a motion to modify the commissioner’s ruling and lift the stay. No new arguments will be heard, but the prosecution, the gun club and lawyers affiliated with CK Safe and Quiet have all submitted a brief in response to the latest motion.
A decision could come down any day, according to Hauge
Since the court-imposed stay, the gun club has reopened at full capacity. Members have been slow to return to the club.
“Most people don’t know we’re open again,” Carter said. “We’re open and we need to get the word out.”
Members have also drifted away because of increased oversight from Kitsap County officials, Carter said. In a community where many individuals are hesitant of government watchdogs, regulations by the county such as reviewing surveillance footage of the club and its users and requesting a list of the kinds of guns members use doesn’t go over well, Carter said.
“People don’t like to feel like they are being watched,” he said.
The “watching,” that club members are concerned about is actually part of the court commissioner’s conditions and not brought on by Kitsap County, Hauge said. The commissioner asked the club to hand over surveillance footage – from cameras installed previously by the club – anytime Kitsap County asks for it. They have only asked for one set up tapes to coincide with a complaint brought by CK Safe and Quiet regarding possible automatic weapon usage.
“We received a complaint by the neighbors that if true would mean they (the club) are in violation of the stay,” Hauge said.
Videotapes and stays aside, most of the members were just happy to have a legal place to shoot, for now.
Gun club user Hugh Lewis has been a member of the club since 1989. He said the holiday celebration was about getting together and visiting during the potluck and having a good time. Lewis said it was nice to shoot at a place with a family-like atmosphere, rather than off in the woods by himself.
“It’s a great place,” Lewis said. “You’re not just a number here. It’s a family.”
Bragge, who has been a member since 1999, said he understands how members are hesitant to come to the club following the years of intrusion from the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office. And with no quick end in sight he doesn’t see membership growing in large numbers anytime soon.
“People are really unsure of their privacy,” he said. “The prosecutor is asking for pictures and they are reviewing the video.”
But like Lewis, Bragge likes the community feel. Letting other members shoot his .50 BMG under his close supervision, he smiles at the sound of the volley of gunshots.
“It’s a great place to be,” Bragge said.
Standing with his hands on his hips and wearing a “Range Officer” t-shirt, Carter inspected the deafening liberty volley.
Carter sees hope for the longterm outlook of the club. The economy is starting to pick-up and they are having some membership renewals. The gun club took the time they were shut to make improvements, such as a concrete walkway, increased brass recovery and rebuilt the shooting berms at the range.
The excitement and camaraderie of the Fourth of July celebration at the range this year gives Carter hope for a future with the smell of cordite hanging in the air.
“The things that made America great are liberty and freedom,” he said. “It’s very important for us to celebrate our independence.”