Future of gun club uncertain as it’s ordered out of Community Building

George Pogge, left, and Lawrence Dietze speak in the basement of the Community Building, 115 W 11th St., on Sunday afternoon. The space was formerly leased by the Douglas County Rifle and Pistol Club, which operated a shooting range there for decades. However, the city ordered that the range be closed indefinitely last month due to the violation of federal law. The club spent Sunday afternoon cleaning the range out.

The former president of the Douglas County Rifle and Pistol Club said his heart “sinks” on every drive he makes past the Lawrence Community Building, which, until recently, was the club’s home for more than 50 years.

The shooting range in the basement of the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St., was an “oasis,” Mark Koch said — a place he heard about in the 1990s from a friend of a friend that quickly became his “go-to.”

Koch established the nonprofit rifle and pistol club around the space in the early 1990s and helped grow its membership from a few dozen to 200.

“This was my contribution to the community,” Koch said. ” What am I going to do for community service now? It’s sad. Even driving by this place… my heart sinks.”

Koch and a half-dozen other longtime members sat in a semicircle inside the range Sunday afternoon, reminiscing on the club’s years-long history in what could be one of the last days it had access to the space.

George Pogge, left, and Lawrence Dietze speak in the basement of the Community Building, 115 W 11th St., on Sunday afternoon. The space was formerly leased by the Douglas County Rifle and Pistol Club, which operated a shooting range there for decades. However, the city ordered that the range be closed indefinitely last month due to the violation of federal law. The club spent Sunday afternoon cleaning the range out.

The club — after being told by the city in February to immediately cease operations — started to clean out the shooting range Sunday, and members handed over their keys. They boxed up the contents of the small, narrow space and hauled most of it away.

It’s unsure, moving forward, whether the club will continue existing in some form. The club’s leadership is currently fighting to reopen the Community Building range, but city staff is already looking toward future uses for the space.

City attorneys ordered the closure of the gun range Feb. 17, deeming it in violation of the federal Gun Free School Zones Act. The law was enacted in 1990 and prohibits anyone from possessing a firearm on public property within 1,000 feet of a school.

The Community Building is located within 1,000 feet from St. John’s School, 1208 Kentucky St.

Questions about the legality of the range’s presence in City Hall arose in January, when the City Commission was considering a Lawrence businessman’s request for a private shooting range off 31st Street.

“To be real with you, I think everybody in this room knew what our contract says, and that is if the city doesn’t want us here, they could drop our contract at any time for any reason,” said Brent Edmonds, the vice president of the club and the son of another longtime member.

The club leased the space from the city for $1 per year.

“But we also assumed the city had no reason they would want the range to close,” said Nathan Oshel, the club’s current president. “It’s never been an issue. Most people don’t even know that we’re here, and our safety record is pretty impeccable.”

Trying to reopen

The club’s future — and whether it has one — is uncertain.

Soon after the closure, leadership asked the city whether it would allow the club to bring unloaded firearms in the Community Building. If the city would have allowed it, the club could’ve continued to conduct safety and maintenance courses, said Lawrence Dietze, the club’s secretary.

The forecast on that idea didn’t look good. The city responded, saying activities could not involve the possession of a firearm.

While they were packing up Sunday afternoon, club members brainstormed other ideas about how the range could remain open.

As of Tuesday, the leadership was exploring options to continue operating out of the space in full capacity. Dietze said he couldn’t yet give any details, but there may be a way the club could “legitimize our existence.”

“We are still running down a couple options to get that facility reopened as a gun range,” Dietze said. “We don’t know how it will work out yet.”

If those ideas, too, are nixed, it’s likely the club could dissolve.

The club, a nonprofit that throws all of its earnings back into its operation, doesn’t have the capital to invest in a new facility. And its membership has dropped drastically in recent weeks.

In 2013, the club reached a peak of 200 members, and it had a core group of 100 members for the past 20 years, Dietze said. After the city ordered the closure, club leaders announced the news to their members and refunded dues some had already submitted for the year.

On Sunday, a white board tracking membership listed February’s count as 38.

The city’s plans

Staff at the Parks and Recreation department is toying with what to do with the space once the gun club officially exits, if it does.

“We’d like to convert it into another classroom space, a place where we can hold our programs,” said Tim Laurent, recreation operations manager for Parks and Rec. “We have a few ideas but nothing concrete.”

Before Parks and Rec can do anything with the space, though, it must hire an air-quality study. It was directed to by City Hall, Laurent said.

Rick Sells, the man planning to open a new firing range in Lawrence, told the City Commission on Jan. 12 that he had doubts the Community Building range met EPA standards for filtering lead particles from the air.

Club members have described the range’s air filtration system as “sufficient,” but Laurent said the city wants to do a study before opening up the space.

“I will say that the range guys, I don’t believe, have ever done an air study,” Laurent said. “We want to make sure it’s safe before we put something in there.”

Laurent said it’s likely the study will be done in the next couple of weeks.

Range’s history

While they were evaluating the options for their future, members of the Douglas County Rifle and Pistol Club attempted to piece together their history Sunday while picking through a small cardboard box marked “records.”

The club was officially established as a nonprofit in 1991, but it existed in a looser form much earlier — since the 1960s, Dietze said.

Membership roles in the club’s early days were filled mostly with Kansas University professors, current members said.

According to a Journal-World article from 1940, as well as records provided by Watkins Museum, the Art Deco structure at 115 W. 11th St. was built that year as a dual Community Building and Kansas National Guard armory. At the time, a fire had just destroyed the National Guard armory in Lawrence, and the city saw a need for a community gathering space.

The rifle range was in the plans for the building from its preliminary stages.

“A move to combine the armory and community building in one grew from the fact that in the past civic events have been held in the armory and it was felt the community could well kill two birds with one stone in providing such a combination building,” the article reads.

Though it’s unsure when, the National Guard eventually ended its lease for the space, and various groups of civilians have been using it since.

How it ran

Prior to Feb. 17, the Douglas County Rifle and Pistol Club operated four nights per week and some Saturdays. Members shot for 50 cents per night, and visitors paid $5.

Everyone who used the firing range was required to go through a Friday-night safety orientation.

Koch said that, while the club had upwards of 200 members, it also trained another 500 per year on how to use their firearms.

“Our average shooter was brand new,” Edmonds said. “Literally, brand new. I want to say that was more than 70 percent of our shooters. They had just bought a gun and wanted to know how to use it.”

Tony Holladay, a regular at the range on Friday nights, said that eight months ago “that was me.”

“I was one of those people,” he said. “I bought my first handgun and came down here. They’ve taught me so much — stance, safety — I owe a lot to these guys.”

Oshel taught the Friday night safety course for seven years, training people on how to stand, how to develop their sight, how to load and unload their guns and what to anticipate with recoil.

His most memorable experience came recently, he said, when a visitor came in with his grandfather’s military-issued handgun from World War II.

“He brought it down here, and we showed him how to disassemble it and clean it, and I did a safety function test on it,” Oshel said. “He was actually able to fire it down here with ammunition his grandpa had kept since World War II. The look on his face was worth all the years of everything I’d missed on Friday nights coming down here. So I’m glad, at least, he got to do that.”

If the club’s last-ditch effort to reopen doesn’t work, members will finish emptying the range of club property, most of which has already been stored elsewhere.

“Hopefully, someday, we get to bring it all back here,” Dietze said.