Zoning Approves Virtual Gun Range as Residents Debate Pros and Cons

EAST LYME – The town’s Zoning Commission voted Thursday night to approve a virtual gun range proposed to fill the vacant former Bob’s Discount Furniture store, after a crowd that spilled out of the chamber spoke both for and against the new business.

Residents who spoke in opposition said they were primarily concerned with the impact that the range could have on children, drawing attention to how close the building is to East Lyme’s middle and high schools. Turning shooting into a game isn’t the right message to send to young people, they said, especially considering the prevalence of gun violence and school shootings in the U.S. They also questioned if the town wants to be known as a destination for gun enthusiasts.

Those in favor of the business emphasized the value of firearms training, and said it is important to give people a safe opportunity to learning how to handle a gun without the need to fire live ammunition. Training encourages safe and responsible gun ownership, they said, which can prevent the problems of irresponsible gun use.

The proposal, a joint venture between Niantic businessman Jas Awla, Niantic Sportsmen’s Club President Matt Fleisher and East Lyme Police Detective Mark Comeau, was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Denise Markovitz the lone vote against the business. 

Ted Harris, the attorney representing Viking Firearm, answering questions raised by concerned residents during the public hearing, said the words “guns” and “firearms” would not be on any sign for the facility, including a sign intended to face Interstate 95. 

Harris said there would be metal detectors at the front desk where customers would enter, and that anyone bringing outside firearms would have to place them in a lockbox at the front desk before going inside. He said the clerks at the front desk would be able to deny anyone who appeared unstable, but said they would not require background checks before allowing customers to use the range.

“I don’t see that the comments with respect to this being a detriment to the community are really valid,” Harris said. “It’s better to have this controlled facility to teach people the right way to have weapons, then for them to just get a permit and buy a weapon.”

Matthew Walker, the chair of the Zoning Commission, said he respected everyone’s opinion, and understood that people in town had concerns about the facility or found it to be objectionable. But Walker said he believed the business would be a benefit to the community because of its emphasis on safety and training.

“I don’t see any basis for this commission [to reject the application] from a health and safety standpoint,” Walker said. “From a land use perspective, we’ve got an empty building – an empty cavern sitting there for the last couple of years, and we’ve got a bona fide business that’s willing to move in there and make it viable and create tax dollars for the town.”

A mix of public responses

Niantic resident Janice Orsini said there wasn’t enough information available to the public about the application, and questioned if a simulated gun range is the right way for impressionable young people in East Lyme to be entertained.

“As we advance in our technology, we need to be mindful and responsible in regard to how this virtual technology impacts our culture and our species,” Orsini said.

Niantic resident Michael Rodgers said he was a light infantry weapons specialist and an NRA safety instructor, and said trainers drill the concepts of safety into their clients every time they handle or mention firearms and ammunition.

Rodgers said people who get in trouble with guns are the ones who were always told to fear guns and never taught how to handle them safely. He said a safe training facility wasn’t going to create a generation of gun-crazed kids.

“Yeah, there’s a school back there, but there was also a Budweiser distributor there. Did we raise a generation of drunks?” he said. “If we did, it wasn’t because of the Budweiser place.”

Niantic resident Paul Clapp, who said he was a hunter, a gun owner and a retired school administrator who has had to call a lockdown in school because of a report of a gun in the school, said the range could be harmful to young people.

Clapp said he could see himself going to the range if it were approved, but called on the commission to restrict the range to only people who are 18 and older. Clapp said firing a gun creates a dopamine response in the shooter – making it a euphoric experience that could be addicting to children under 18 years old.

“Saying that it is okay for a child to fire a high-powered handgun under adult supervision is specious,” Clapp said. “No 12-year-old should be firing a simulated Glock 9 mm [handgun] under any circumstances.”

Harris, the attorney representing Viking Firearm, said anyone under 16 years old would need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. He said the age limit was set at 16 instead of 18 or 21 because they felt 16 and 17 year olds should be able to practice using guns safely before they’re able to own guns with live ammunition.

Clapp also questioned what kinds of firearms would be offered at the range, if the training simulators would encourage shooting at human targets, and if those targets would reinforce racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes. Harris said there would be only “neutral targets” on the screens, not people.

East Lyme Police Officer Justin Hanna said that he wished he had this option when he was a teenager. Hanna said he first started firing guns when he was 14 and his cousin took him to the shooting range. He said he didn’t have any safety training then, and only received basic safety training before obtaining his license later on.

“I look at this business as a wonderful opportunity for people to take that NRA [safety] class before they go out and apply for a permit, to familiarize themselves with how to use a firearm,” Hanna said. “They can be taught how to store it and get a general feeling for if this is something they should have, as opposed to getting a pistol permit, buying a weapon, not using or storing it correctly and being a danger to somebody else.”

Hanna said it would be a good opportunity for law enforcement to train. In standard ranges with live fire, you can’t practice pulling your gun from its holster and firing, but they could practice on the simulated range without the risk of a misfire hurting someone, he said. Hanna said he knows from working with Comeau that he takes firearms very seriously, and would do everything to ensure it’s a safe place.

East Lyme resident Davd Harlow said his experience as a Marine in Vietnam has led him to feel that having simulated combat is a bad idea. Whether in video games or in the virtual shooting range, Harlow said turning combat into a game is a bad message to send to young people – and he noted how close the location is to both the middle school and high school.

Harlow, who said he was on military police duty after his tour in Vietnam, said police today need highly specialized training, and that firearm training is only a small part of that. He said he was also concerned that the facility would draw people in from long distances, and that the town couldn’t control if any of those people happened to be unstable.

“I think it’s too close to vulnerable groups, especially our children,” Harlow said. “I know we have guards now because of Sandy Hook, however I don’t see any defensive perimeters around the time that school buses arrive and depart, and as I said, it only takes one individual.”

Awla, one of the principal owners of the venture, said it’s important to the owners that the range has broad appeal so that it can succeed as a business. He said he hoped that as people learned more about the range, their concerns would be alleviated and they would see the owners’ intentions are to benefit everyone. He encouraged anyone with questions about the project to reach out and they would be happy to give them the information they need.

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