Near the National Key Deer Refuge in the Lower Keys, on a sleepy street called Mango Lane, retired sheriff’s deputy Huey Gordon checked the waterway behind neighbor Doug Varrieur’s home for boat traffic.
“All clear?” asked Varrieur, an author of diet cookbooks and owner of rental properties.
“Yes, sir, you are,” Gordon said.
To which Varrieur replied: “The range is hot.”
He put on earmuffs and, within a few seconds, the peace of the residential neighborhood was replaced with the burst of small-caliber gunfire. Varrieur fired seven shots that traveled 21 feet to a target that had three cans inside a box and a picture of a zombie holding a screaming woman.
“All right, one dead can,” said Varrieur, 57.
It has been a month since the friends first fired their guns in this makeshift shooting area – surrounded by a chain-link fence, a shiny RV and the canal. The shots sent shockwaves through the neighborhood.
It became even scarier once the neighbors learned that on Varrieur’s side was a state law on the books since 1987. Varrieur said most gun owners like himself had just assumed they couldn’t shoot in residential neighborhoods.
“I honestly had hoped no one would catch wind of it and it would become public knowledge,” Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said of the state law that pre-empts local ordinances. “I’m concerned now that people know. This isn’t about the right to own and bear arms. My concern is public safety and quality of life.”
Ramsay is not the only one who is worried. Since word got out about the legality of Varrieur’s “Gun Day” – he shoots from 3 to 4 p.m. every Wednesday – citizens and lawmakers up and down the island chain have become concerned that gun owners less responsible than Varrieur will begin shooting in their own yards.
“Without any oversight, somebody’s neighbor could set up a gun range and invite his friends over and have a good old time shooting,” said longtime Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent. “That’s a little scary situation, and I say that as a gun owner and somebody who believes in the Second Amendment.”
Even Varrieur said he was surprised to discover that he could shoot with few restrictions and with no mandatory safety requirements.
“It’s almost the wild, wild west again when we go back to firing wherever you want, whenever you want,” Ramsay said.
If people want to shoot on private property next to a daycare center, they can. Just last month, Ernie Vasiliou threatened to put a private gun range on a one-acre lot on Ranches Road west of Boynton Beach if a proposed daycare center were approved on land next to his. Vasiliou said noisy kids would ruin his dream-home plans.
When Monroe County commissioners asked whether noise ordinances could be invoked to stop shooting at private homes, County Attorney Bob Shillinger said no.
“And if they want to shoot a fully automatic weapon, and have a class 3 license, technically they would not be in violation of anything,” Ramsay said.
Varrieur, a snowbird, said he did not set out to create the firestorm. For years, he had been content shooting his gun at the range he built at his rural home on 6 and a half acres near the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
It was a .38 Charter Arms pistol that he bought for protection 27 years ago, after a woman pulled a gun on him while he was with his wife and two small kids in the parking lot of a Miami restaurant. The woman had claimed he stole her parking space.
Last month, another frightening situation in Miami, in which he feared being carjacked while pumping gas, led him to purchase two new Smith and Wesson Bodyguard 380s, small-caliber guns with integrated lasers. One is for his wife, who has poor eyesight. Varrieur believes a gun with a laser will offer her more protection.
When the guns arrived, he reasoned he needed to find a place to shoot them in the Keys to calibrate the lasers.
“I was complaining to my gun shop owner that the nearest range from here is in Big Coppitt Key, which is 50 miles round trip, costs $45 an hour and is enclosed in a building with people shooting around you that you don’t know,” Varrieur said. “I told him in North Carolina, I could just go out to the gun range in my yard and fire my weapons, and it’s too bad you can’t do that in Florida, too.”
The gun shop owner told him that there were “rumors” that you could. It didn’t take Varrieur long to look up Florida statute 790.15, and he was surprised by what he found.
“I said to my wife: ‘Do you know the only rules to discharging firearms on residential property are that you can’t fire over a right-of-way of any paved public road, highway or street, you can’t fire over any occupied dwelling and you can’t fire recklessly or negligently?” Varrieur said. “That’s it.”
Until 2011, the statute didn’t even include the part about firing “recklessly or negligently.” Exactly what that means, no one knows for sure. Patrick McCullah, general counsel for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, said that at this point there is no case law at the appellate level that has interpreted the terms “recklessly or negligently” in the statute.
In the Jan. 17 “Weekly Wrap Up” for the sheriff’s office, McCullah addressed the issue for the third time. Because the statute is so subjective and vague, McCullah recommends that officers contact him on a case-by-case basis.
Because violation of the statute is only a first-degree misdemeanor, Ramsay said an officer would have to personally witness the recklessness or negligence to make an arrest at the scene. (The offense is punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and maximum jail time of a year.)
Varrieur said he is supremely concerned about safety – especially because his parents, who are in their 80s, live next door. He built a target with plywood attached to a wood structure that is three feet by four feet and six inches thick. For further safety, Varrieur spent $600 to build a wooden backstop eight feet wide by seven feet high and a foot thick that he placed in front of a storage shed.
While it is not required, the backstop was inspected by a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy and two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers. Still, several neighbors are upset about the noicse and concerned about stray bullets, which they fear could kill pets or people. One woman tried to gather signatures for a petition to stop the shooting.
Ramsay said even trained officers have accidental discharges. “And even if you are a good shot, bullets can ricochet,” he said. “Just look at all the holes in the ceiling and side walls at indoor gun ranges.”
A month ago, on Christmas Day, a grandfather in Volusia County was working in his back yard when he was hit in the chest by an errant bullet fired from a neighbor’s yard. Bruce Fleming, 69, died less than an hour later at a local hospital.
No arrest has been made in the case while investigators await forensic evidence. According to the Daytona Beach News Journal, the shooter has been identified. He admitted to firing a shotgun but said he did not know the bullets had hit anyone. The shots were fired from a nearby property with a horse stable.
Many municipalities in Florida used to have local laws banning the firing of guns in residential areas. While the preemptive state law has been in place for almost three decades, many local governments ignored it and passed their own gun ordinances.
But in 2011, backed by the National Rifle Association, the Republican-led state Legislature put more teeth into the state law, creating penalties for local lawmakers who violate it. Gov. Rick Scott signed the law that now makes anyone who creates or upholds local gun ordinances subject to fines of up to $5,000. They also can be removed from office and forced to pay their own legal bills if sued over local gun ordinances.
Once the 2011 law took effect, Florida Carry, a nonprofit, gun-rights organization, began systematically going after any municipality that had not already put a bullet into its local gun ordinances.
Palm Beach County sued the state to keep its gun laws, but the courts upheld the Legislature’s authority.
“I think it’s ridiculous and absurd that we can’t regulate where shooting ranges can crop up,” said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers, whose district includes the high-density island of Key West.
As the law is written now, a person technically could shoot a gun even in a tiny yard near Duval Street.
During a Monroe County Commission meeting last week, County Attorney Shillinger gave the commissioners the news: “Your hands are tied.”
But they haven’t given up. At a special meeting scheduled for Jan. 31, an agenda item was added that authorizes the county to seek an opinion from the state attorney general regarding the county’s authority to regulate shooting ranges on residential properties.
“That’s already been asked and answered, in my opinion,” Ramsay said. “The law is point blank on it: Don’t interfere with somebody firing a gun on their property.”
In 2005, when Charlie Crist was attorney general, he wrote a letter to Sheriff Roy Raymond of Indian River County that said: “It is well settled that absent a general law stating otherwise, local governments have no authority to regulate firearms in any manner.”
Raymond had asked Crist whether the county could pass an ordinance prohibiting the discharge of a firearm in proximity to persons or property when such discharge endangers the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of such county.
State Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican who represents the Keys, said that while she is a big supporter of the Second Amendment, she was “shocked” when she heard about the lack of regulation of residential shooting ranges.
“I almost didn’t believe it at first,” she said. “I’m originally from Alaska, and we’re no strangers to guns up there. But even in Anchorage, that’s not allowed. Public safety has to be a top priority.”
Raschein asked the county to get clarification from the current Florida attorney general before she looks into what can be done by the Legislature. She has received a list of suggestions on how to make statute 790.15 stronger – and that list came from Varrieur.
“There’s people in this area who think I’m some redneck, chewing, dipping my lip, Second Amendment nut,” Varrieur said. “I’m not. All I want to do is come out here and safely shoot my gun. Instead, I am pushing the limit – the only way to get attention is if people get mad.”
The reason: He, too, is concerned about what he called the “loose” way the law is written.
“I would be fearful if someone just started firing weapons on his side yard without appropriate and proper backdrops and safety precautions in place,” he said. “You’re damn right I would be. There is no room for error when it comes to a lethal weapon.”
He made a list of requirements he thinks should be included in the statute for non-rural residences. They include requirements about backstops, targets, the distance that bullets can travel, the time of day shots can be fired and the types of weapons and ammunition that can be used. He doesn’t think it is safe to use high-powered rifles and armor-piercing bullets at your home.
Varrieur also thinks owners should be required to take a gun-safety course and call the local police department before firing so that it won’t waste resources checking out shots-fired calls when officers could be needed in an emergency elsewhere.
On Wednesday, he called the sheriff’s office and then his wife to let her know it was time to put the dogs into the bathtub because he was about to start shooting. “The noise scares them,” he said.
“My wife just told me there has been a shooting at Oklahoma University,” he said. That report last week turned out to be a false alarm. But, he said, “It’s rampant, so rampant that each and every individual in this country needs to be self-protected. And everybody who has a gun needs to practice.
“I don’t want the law to go away. I want to see the law get better.”