Responsible shooting best way to keep public lands open

It's almost a Christmas miracle: Gun rights advocates and the Obama administration actually agreed on something.

The administration recently announced that it will not impose new restrictions for recreational shooting on public lands.

A policy proposed during the summer suggested millions of acres of federal land could be closed to gun users because they were too close to residential areas.

Hunting and target practice on federal lands are a part of living here in the Northwest. Hunting season is winding down, with many local residents posting pictures of their trophies on Facebook pages and stocking their freezers with deer sausage.

The proposal aimed to protect public safety, especially in areas of the West that have seen residential development creep in near the boundaries of federal lands.

Target shooters and homeowners have had their run-ins over stray bullets. A couple in North Idaho recently asked the state to ban hunting on state endowment land near their home, claiming whizzing bullets were causing them to fear for their safety.

The Bureau of Land Management said traditional target shooting areas were the main problem, with many of them now on the outskirts of residential developments.

We've seen a similar issue crop up on private land in the Mid-Columbia, where a makeshift shooting range had been tolerated for years. On occasion, stray bullets have spooked hikers, and too often, shooters have left behind piles of trash and shell casings.

A 7-year-old boy visiting a Finley park with his family last year was shot in the leg by a stray bullet fired hundreds of yards away at a target practice site on land owned by Kennewick General Hospital. The incident prompted the hospital to close the property to recreational shooting after years of allowing access.

There was definitely cause for alarm among shooting enthusiasts when the BLM's plan became public over the summer. But to the surprise of many gun-loving folks, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proclaimed support in writing last month for use of federal lands for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting.

"By facilitating access, multiple use and safe activities on public lands, the Bureau of Land Management helps ensure that the vast majority of the 245 million acres it oversees are open and remain open to recreational shooting," he wrote in a memo.

Salazar told BLM chief Bob Abbey to "take no further action to develop or implement" the proposal that would have restricted shooting on public lands.

Despite the victory to keep millions of acres of federal land open to the public for shooting, not all gun rights advocates are convinced that the tone of the administration has changed.

"One thing is sure: You can't blink with these guys or they'll slip something through," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., a critic of the BLM proposal.

Some hunting advocacy groups are putting the responsibility on the government to improve lands for safe shooting with berms and target holders.

But we believe the responsibility lies with gun users. Safety is first and foremost, not just for the person doing the shooting but for the surrounding area, including people who may be using the recreational land for horseback riding or hiking.

Be aware of your surroundings, be cautious and courteous and follow safe gun practices. And clean up after your target shooting sessions. By behaving responsibly, you'll help keep lands open for future use.