For the past few months, the sound of gun fire has been absent from the buildings at Laurel’s Riverside Park, where the Laurel Rod and Gun club has practiced shooting for decades.
Laurel Mayor Mark Mace recently changed the locks on the doors and placed “no trespassing” signs on the doors after he said he learned the buildings tested dangerously high for lead.
“The lead content got so high, so we decided we needed to get it tested,” said Mace. “They were very very very high. The buildings were never really designed for shooting, the ventilation system isn’t built for that, so that’s why it is the way it is.”
The Laurel Rod and Gun Club, which consists of about 325 members, has been without a range to practice since the testing results came back in the spring.
“The city has taken 70 to 80 years of history and thrown it right out the window,” said Irv Wilke, the president of the Laurel Rod and Gun Club.
Wilke believes the organization’s long-held indoor and outdoor shooting range is in jeopardy.
City administrators want to make Riverside Park a destination for visitors, so they’re considering additions like a dog park, gazebo and cabins.
For Wilke, change spells trouble for the club, which is home to hunter’s education courses, as well as target shooters.
“Liability: that’s the big word they use,” said Wilke. “They think whatever they do, (whether) they give us the building and we clean them up, they’re still liable.”
Wilke said his organization had offered in the past to make renovations and have the buildings repaired back when flood waters tore through in 2011.
But he said the city turned down the offer.
“If they’d just left us alone then, we wouldn’t have this problem today,” said Wilke.
Mace said the buildings simply cannot be inhabited while the lead levels are so high.
“As mayor, I decided the folks of Laurel didn’t want their money to go toward a lawsuit over things folks shouldn’t consume,” said Mace.
Mace didn’t immediately have any specs about the remediation needed, but he said he shut down the operation with the guidance of the Montana Municipal Insurance Authority, the city’s insurer.
“We can’t continue until we get a facility that’s hopefully out of city limits in the county somewhere where they can do outdoor and indoor and not bother (people),” said Mace. “These types of rooms are used for community meetings and gatherings too and not everyone is a shooter, so these should be used for everyone.”
It’s unclear what is to become of the historic stone buildings, which housed German and Japanese Prisoners of War long before they were used for target practice.
Wilke said he hopes enough supporters of the club can speak up to help preserve the shooting range.
While posters presenting ideas for the many new opportunities were on display at the meeting, the gun club said they were told they could not present a poster for preserving the buildings for the club’s use.”