By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Craig Hlavaty
Fully automatic weapons are not welcome. That also goes for incendiary bullets, tracers, explosive or armor-piercing ammunition. Point loaded guns only at the targets. Bottles and tin cans, those mainstays of plinkers everywhere, also aren't to grace the crosshairs of the shooters here.
But two other targets seem to be fair game for this gun club: They go by the names of Tommy Pearson and Todd Woodard. And BRI appears to have discovered that unlike paper bull's-eyes and body silhouettes, these two live targets are capable of shooting back -- and scoring effective hits.
Along this water-softened soil of the reservoir bottom off Eldridge Parkway, the battle of Bayou Rifles is under way in earnest.
The Bayou Rifles gun club first claimed these 40 or so isolated acres in a lease from the Army Corps of Engineers back in 1955. There was no Katy Freeway less than a half-mile away, no Bear Creek Park development to the north or Omni Hotel or gleaming Conoco headquarters along the winding Dairy Ashford to the south. This wasn't today's subdivision-and-strip-mall west Houston -- it was the open prairie far west of Houston.
Woodard, now 41, was a preteen in the Odessa-area hamlet of Crane when he participated in a juniors' shooting match at Bayou Rifles. The area had changed significantly by 1995, when he paid his $80 annual dues to shoot with the 1,200 other members. Woodard is an editor for various gun publications and needed a handy range to field-test his work. The club rivals ATMs in 24/7 access: Members get the combination to the front gate and come and go as they please.
Before long, Woodard, 51-year-old Pearson and other enthusiasts were active volunteers, pumping new energy into the shotgun division of BRI. As board members, they helped sponsor competitive meets and a junior training program, and bankrolled an expansion and renovation of the range's shotgun section.
The shotgun crowd says the energy apparently rubbed the wrong way with old-line BRI leaders and devotees of other weapons. The club's infighting escalated when the influential high-power (rifle) division began aiming for a 600-yard range on club land near the community of Juliff, south of Houston. Vocal shotgunners sniped at the estimated costs of $200,000, and the showdown over the club's direction came in late 1999 -- the entire shotgun division was voted out of existence.
Many of the rebels simply holstered up and left for more agreeable clubs or ranges. The club board itself dispatched others by not renewing their memberships. Pearson, a good friend of Woodard's, was axed after what directors call the bogus Alibi incident. The club has its official Alibi newsletter, although Pearson paid from his own pocket to produce an unauthorized newsletter that the regular club printer unknowingly mailed to members. It challenged the legality of the vote to dismantle the shotgun division.
Woodard says he vowed to muzzle his complaints unless opponents got personal in the lingering disputes. That happened in January -- his membership renewal never arrived, nor did any explanations.
On January 24 he shot a lengthy e-mail to BRI president John Treckham, protesting his "backdoor" ouster: "If you want to follow club rules and try to throw me out on legitimate grounds later, go for it."
He told of his concerns about range safety at the club and reminded the president that he was the technical editor of national gun publications. If his membership wasn't renewed by 5 p.m. that day, Woodard wrote, he was sure that various public agencies would be very interested in hearing about the problems.
The deadline came. And went.
Woodard and Pearson later headed to the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Galveston. The BRI range, they told the agency, "is an accident waiting to happen "
As a private shooting club, Bayou Rifles has plenty of gun-sights but little oversight. It has a sweetheart noncompetitive lease arrangement with the Corps of Engineers, paying about $260 annually in a current lease that runs until October 2003. That lease, however, comes with obligations:
The club can't discriminate. And yet Woodard and Pearson say less than 1 percent of the membership is minority, and few women are allowed. Nobody can join without the sponsorship of a member -- and few minorities get that sponsorship, the two contend. BRI is supposed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet there are no ramps or even paved paths to allow access for the disabled.
Foremost, it has to be a safe operation. Gun ranges rely primarily on backstops and shooting-stand baffling -- which has the same effect as baseball batting cages in knocking down foul balls -- to keep bullets within the ranges. BRI's protection is woefully lacking in comparison to other ranges, the dissidents say.
Furthermore, an arsenal of different high-powered ammunition can travel as far as 9,000 feet, easily within the range of traffic along the busy Eldridge Parkway just to the west, and northward even to Bear Creek Park and some of its recreational amenities. The west barrier, a 12-foot wooden fence with large gaps, is ineffective in stopping errant shells, Pearson and Woodard say.
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