Range War

The shootout over gun club safety

The BRI board has heard about irresponsible activity, even guns being pointed at the Omni Hotel and populated areas, the pair say. While directors discussed hiring range officers or installing surveillance cameras, all they actually did was post signs falsely stating that the premises are monitored by video cameras, the two told the corps.

The club notes that high-powered centerfire ammo and weaponry is banned at the range. However, there is no range officer -- no one to supervise during shooting. Pearson and Woodard say they've picked up the shell casings of banned high-powered bullets, and more evidence is apparent in Dumpsters pockmarked by stray shots.

"We doubt that the parents at Bear Creek ball fields will be mollified by assurances from BRI that it is against club policy to fire centerfire rifle ammunition at the range," Woodard stated. They told the corps about their feud with the BRI leadership but said that "motivation was immaterial" to the issues they raised.

Woodard (foreground)  and Pearson pause by the safety rules posted at BRI's entrance.
Deron Neblett
Woodard (foreground) and Pearson pause by the safety rules posted at BRI's entrance.

The corps conducted a review and met with club officials. After that, BRI returned fire -- in state district court. It sued Woodard and Pearson for libel, saying that after losing their memberships, they'd engaged in blackmail and tried to cost the club its lease. The club says the allegations are false, and it demands $100,000 in damages.

David Lueders, a board member and attorney, scoffed at the accusations against BRI. As for nondiscrimination, he says a former president is a black Houston police officer and that anyone who shows up for orientation gets a sponsorship. But he has no idea how many minorities are members.

As for the range, Lueders says BRI has absolutely no safety problems or incidents in its history. The allegations are no more than an "act of vengeance" by former members who were rightfully dismissed after improper actions. Their claims are overblown -- the errant-bullet arguments could be made against any range in the Houston area, he argues.

Woodard and Pearson say they are legitimately voicing their opinions and that their comments were privileged communications to a public agency. They also are mounting one other defense, that the range criticism is accurate. They've got an ally in that stance -- the Corps of Engineers itself.

"We have found problems at Bayou Rifles and need the rifle range to be brought up to higher standards before we can consider renewal of the lease," the corps notified BRI in June.

Richard Harrison, chief of the corps' real estate division, told BRI that the club should have an on-site range officer, preferably one with proper certification.

The club should drop the sponsorship requirement for new members and be fully accessible to everyone. The corps also wants an annual report on any incidents or injuries at the range -- and it wants more baffling added to ensure safety.

Five months later, there's no indication the club has acted on any of the requests. Lueders would say only that BRI has looked into adding a range officer. He was similarly vague about when -- or if -- the club would add the baffling. A spokeswoman for the corps would say only that the agency is concerned about safety at its leases. More detailed questions went unanswered.

The libel case, pending before Judge Martha Hill Jamison, appears similar to what the Houston Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse calls a SLAPP suit -- strategic lawsuit against public participation. CALA director Jon Opelt explains that such cases are usually filed by developers or others wanting to intimidate or silence critics, usually during a government review process.

Opelt notes he was speaking only generally and has not reviewed the case. He says if the corps finds valid safety concerns, then the courts may view it as a "vindictive lawsuit that could backfire against the club."

Pearson, who operates a landscape business, and Woodard thus far have had to come up with $8,000 in legal fees. Woodard, a volunteer shooting coach for Westside High School, now does his own firing at American Shooting Centers, which has a range officer, extensive baffling and a four-mile "drop zone" as an extra margin of safety.

"It is pretty clear to us that [BRI leaders] are trying to harass us, rather than making their range safer," he says. "We think that's irresponsible, but not at all surprising, since we know these guys all too well…I just hope the corps somehow wakes up and sees the Addicks range for the problem it is."

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