Safety Complaint Preceded Fatality, But No Agency Regulates Ranges


A Bellevue firing range where a man was shot and killed Monday was investigated last year for allegedly lax safety procedures, but police discovered no government agency had jurisdiction over the facility.

Bellevue Police said their investigation of the shooting of Michael Chumney at the Wade's Eastside Gun Shop, 13570 N.E. Bellevue-Redmond Road, should take about two weeks, but they believe Monday's shooting was accidental.

Owner Wade Gaughran said safety has always been a priority at the firing range, which has operated since early last year.

But last April, a customer was so upset with safety procedures that he contacted Bellevue Police. Mark Owen, who owns several guns and took safety courses as a child in Montana, said he went to Wade's because he was looking for a place to teach his own children.

"They were taking people right off the street and giving them about a two-minute checkout before setting them loose on the range," Owen said.

He said he saw employees walking around with guns tucked in their belts or holsters.

"It was unsafe," he said.

Gaughran disagrees, explaining that customers sign a list of safety rules and are monitored as they shoot. He called Monday's fatality a "tragic accident . . . one in a million." During his 25 years in the gun industry, he said, "I've never heard of this type of thing happening."

Gaughran said that he hadn't decided whether the shooting range would be reconfigured or otherwise changed but that he would ask gun experts to evaluate it.

Last year, after checking on Owen's complaint, Bellevue Police said they lacked jurisdiction over safety issues at the facility and referred the case to a city code-compliance officer.

Robin Zambrowsky reviewed the complaint but determined that the city could regulate only land-use decisions, such as parking and noise related to the range but not safety.

She contacted the state Department of Labor and Industries, but it also lacked authority to intercede, because it deals with employee-related safety - not customer safety.

Even the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms doesn't review shooting ranges, leaving that responsibility to local governments.

King County has an ordinance outlining specific safety requirements, but it applies only to unincorporated parts of the county.

"There are no detailed industry standards for gun-range facilities or procedures," said Les Wahl, owner of the Continental Sportsman gun range in Mountlake Terrace. "You have to gear your safety standards to the lowest common denominator because sooner or later the dumbest person on Earth is going to come through the door."

The gun range at Wade's Eastside Gun Shop is similar to a bowling alley, except bullets and targets take the place of balls and pins.

The place draws an eclectic crowd. People come individually or in groups from church, work or clubs, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day for gun-safety lessons, shooting competitions and theme nights.

Monday is "Ladies Day." Customers who own guns of any caliber can come in Wednesday night for the "bowling-pin shoot," a contest in which shooters fire at five pins set on a table 25 feet away.

The Northwest Pistol Association holds shooting-skills training on Thursdays. And on Fridays, there's an indoor action shoot, where contestants draw from a holster and shoot rapidly at a number of targets.

Not every area gun range allows customers to pull from a holster and fire. Some businesses, such as Continental Sportsman in Mountlake Terrace, have asked customers to leave when they've been spotted practicing holster techniques.

Customers can bring their own firearms and equipment or rent them at the front counter, like bowling balls and shoes.

And depending on one's thoughts about guns, a glass display case shows off either an intimidating or inspiring array of handguns.

The .44-caliber Magnum, such as the one involved in Monday's fatal shooting, is the most powerful handgun available for rent at Wade's shooting range.

Yesterday, there wasn't one on display.

Rifles cling to the wall behind the display case, along with the protective ear covers and goggles required for all customers.

To the right is the entrance to Wade's Eastside Gun Shop, where Gaughran sells firearms, related equipment and glossy security vaults.

But, unlike a bowling alley, a seriousness pervades a gun range.

Inside the range, for instance, it's difficult not to get the feeling someone is spying on you. Someone is.

An observation window, from which an on-duty "rangemaster" watches to make sure customers follow safety rules, looks out onto one section of the shooting gallery.

The 24 shooting lanes have been divided into three separate bays. In each bay are eight booths about 3 or 4 feet wide. Mechanical conveyors extending from the ceiling of each booth carry paper targets that can be stationed at certain distances. The back wall is more than 50 feet away.

A red line on the floor of each booth marks the point beyond which observers should stand and within which shooters must fire. A list of safety rules posted in each booth tells customers to be extremely careful as they point and shoot.

Gaughran demonstrated a .44-caliber Magnum for reporters yesterday to illustrate the reason for all the safety precautions.

The gun doesn't crack or pop, it makes a sonic boom, and the shooter's whole body is jolted from the blow. The bullet's impact stirs a cloud of dust on the far wall, seemingly before the shot is heard.

Even in Gaughran's experienced hands, the gun recoiled a bit when fired. He said it rattled the bones in his hands and described the experience of using the gun as "not a very pleasant" one.

He said customers are told before they use the Magnum to expect to be startled by its force. Shooters are encouraged to let the gun recoil a little, as it tends to do when fired.

Just in case the gun slips, the booth's walls and ceilings are made of a bullet-absorbing sandwich of black carpet, tile, wood and finally metal. The floor beneath the shooters is wood, too. Softer materials absorb rather than deflect bullets and fragments.

The observation windows peering into each section of rooms are 3 inches thick with shatterproof glass.

Two time-lapse surveillance cameras in each room watch from above.

In addition to using the observation windows, the rangemaster monitors customers' actions on a set of closed-circuit TV screens stacked next to the front counter.

Customers must sign a liability release form and a paper saying they've read four safety rules.

Because no government body regulates gun ranges, these rules represent part of an unofficial ethical code among gun handlers:

-- Always point the firearm in a safe direction.

-- Always handle the gun as if it is loaded, even when you're confident it's not.

-- Don't point at anything you aren't willing to shoot, and don't put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to fire.

-- Always think about what's on the other side of the object you aim to hit. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Bellevue firing-range accident

A woman shooting target practice at an indoor firing range accidentally shot and killed the friend standing behind her Monday night. Here's what happened:

1. Holding gun with both hands, woman fires twice at target. 2. Recoil from second shot sends gun upward and to woman's side. Third shot fired from that position, hitting woman's friend in neck and killing him.

The gun Described as "Dirty Harry" type of gun with strong trigger pull Maker: Smith & Wesson Model: M29 revolver Caliber: .44 Action: double Capacity: 6 rounds

Sources: reporting by Louis T. Corsaletti, Sherry Grindeland, Seattle Times