At Home On The Range

A world away from the crime scenes, there is respect and a love for guns.

October 17, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Nobody here but us good ol' boys.

With the air turned crisper, the days running shorter and deer hunting season just around the corner, we are gathered here to shoot our guns - deep within a Carroll County landfill at a county-operated range known as the Hap Baker Firearms Facility.

There's ol' Jim Cole, a bearded, soft-spoken former shop teacher who serves as range officer, making sure we handle our firearms safely and shoot at nothing other than the paper targets, located 25 to 200 yards away.

There's ol' Ray Cox and his cousin, Chuck Stein, who have taken the day off from their jobs at Home Depot to get ready for muzzle-loading deer season, which starts in most of Maryland today.

There's Daniel Kim, practicing with the handgun he keeps under the counter of his liquor store in Glen Burnie; and Francis Munoz, a collector of military weaponry who was headed last weekend to a machine gun-shooting fest in Kentucky.

And there's David Mick, who's only 11, but, under the watchful eye of his father - a psychology professor who's against hunting - handling his new .22 caliber rifle quite capably.

Maybe we aren't all good ol' boys, cut from the same camouflage cloth, after all. But we're relatively sure that - here in the 10 shooting lanes at Hap Baker's, where the air is regularly pierced with the crack of everything from muzzle-loading rifles to handguns to high-powered military-type weapons - there is not a lunatic among us.

Yes, there is a sniper at large, striking randomly and repeatedly from Virginia to Maryland. Yes, he may have honed his skills at a place like this, with a weapon not unlike these. And, yes, had he not been able to procure a gun, legally or illegally, nine people would not be dead of gunshot wounds.

But that - the men at Hap's will tell you, or most of them anyway - is no reason to ban all firearms, badmouth those who shoot for sport or further restrict the sale of rifles, rarely the weapon of choice for the commission of day-to-day violent crime.

Nor are one man's aberrant acts - though they make carrying around a rifle, buying ammo, hunting deer and visiting any of Maryland's 50 public and private shooting ranges more problematic than usual - reason to stop shooting.

Quitting, even momentarily, would be like forgoing driving every time the state experiences carnage on the highways. Besides, cars don't kill people, people ... Never mind.

Truth be told, I am but an honorary - or dishonorary, depending on one's view - member of this clique, having not fired a gun since childhood, having felt nothing but guilt when I bagged my first and only bird (pheasant, maybe?), and being, when it comes to firearms, more scared than enthused, more anti than pro, more ignorant than anything else.

Looking for a place to observe and talk to shooters, most of whom practice in private clubs, I have ended up in the Carroll County Northern Landfill, the farthest recesses of which is home to the Hap Baker Firearms Facility, one of only a handful of public ranges in the Baltimore area.

For $5 ($10 if you're out-of-county) you can shoot (anything but automatic or semi-automatic weapons) for two hours, longer if no one's waiting, and people often are.

With sportsmen's clubs offering few new memberships, and development gnawing away at the amount of wide open countryside available for shooting, the Carroll County commissioners approved building the range in 1995.

It is named after the late Clair D. "Hap" Baker, a gun-rights activist who spent seven years fighting for the range as president of the Carroll County Sportsmen's Association. Like tennis courts, playgrounds and horse trails, it is operated by the county's recreation department.

Although it drew protests - all from nearby residents concerned about noise and safety - the range, open Wednesday through Sunday, is now tolerated by neighbors, popular among gun enthusiasts and packed on weekends.

And as range officer Cole sees it, by getting shooters out of the woods, the range has made part-suburban, part-rural Carroll County a safer place.

"We get doctors, lawyers, families, ministers, people from all walks of life," Cole says. "Bad guys don't come here to shoot. Just good ol' boys who ... enjoy coming in and shooting and swapping stories."

There are times he might raise an eyebrow - when "Rambo wannabes" come in, or store clerks "who decide they better learn how to use the gun they keep in their Jiffy store," or customers who ask if they can use an ex-wife's photo as a target. (That request was declined, though judging from a shot-up Osama bin Laden target hanging in the construction trailer that serves as Cole's office, there are exceptions.)

But by and large, Cole says, his customers are people who have grown up around, and still like to use, guns.

"In Baltimore, when they hear gunfire, they duck and cover," said Cole. "Up here, you just keep doing what you're doing. It's not a big deal. It's just a way of life. We're country boys who like to shoot and hunt."

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