Veterans group appeals Juneau Planning Commission decision on indoor shooting range

Construction for the indoor gun range has begun at 1720 Crest St. near the Juneau International Airport.

Construction of an indoor gun range is underway at 1720 Crest St. near the Juneau International Airport. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)

Juneau Veterans for Peace is appealing a recent Planning Commission decision granting a conditional use permit for an indoor shooting range at a proposed gun shop near the airport.

Phil Smith is president of the local Veterans for Peace chapter. He says the city’s community development staff did not do a thorough review of how the range would affect “public health or safety.” The facility’s owners plan to allow customers to fire automatic weapons under the supervision of gun store employees.

“There’s really no analysis of the security steps that will be taken in the building and there’s no setting of accountability for ensuring that those steps are taken,” says Smith. “There’s nothing about reviewing the backgrounds of those who want to use the facility. So, there doesn’t seem to be any accountability.”

Smith also thinks it’s likely the project developers had private conversations with members of the Planning Commission and Juneau Assembly, which may have influenced the outcome of the commission’s decision. The gun store and shooting range is being developed by Juneau Mercantile and Armory, a limited liability company co-owned by Planning Commission member Dan Miller.

“There may have been some off the record communication. I’m not saying its evil or wrong or immoral. But it may have satisfied most of the questions that commissioners had or Assembly people had before they took the actions they did,” Smith says. “And in that case it was improper, because the commission in particular is an adjudicative body, and obviously there will be two sides to most issues that come before them, and they broker based upon a record that is developed publicly. And we think the record is pretty thin.”

Miller declined to comment on the appeal, which has yet to go to the Assembly.

The city’s Deputy Community Development Director Greg Chaney says the project review gathered input from other departments, including Juneau Police.

“There really isn’t much that they’re worried about,” says Chaney. “These type of weapons are legal within the City and Borough of Juneau, and to be using them in a basement that’s designed for it, is probably the safest place that they can be discharged.”

Initially, the Planning Commission was unable to approve a conditional use permit for the project. That’s because a city ordinance banning the discharge of firearms within a quarter mile of a road did not include an exemption for private gun ranges. The Assembly in November changed the ordinance to exempt private ranges after hearing public testimony from Miller and project opponents.

But Chaney disputes the notion that Miller or his business associates may have had off the record discussions about the project with members of the Planning Commission or Assembly.

“I talked to Mr. Miller quite a bit about this,” Chaney says. “When the item was considered by the Planning Commission he recused himself and left the room, which is not required but is good form. So, I think it’s kind of a groundless accusation at this point.”

Smith says Juneau Veterans for Peace wants the Assembly to accept the appeal and either deny the permit or remand it to the Planning Commission, which the group wants to appoint a citizen panel to review the proposal.

He says the goal is not to ban guns, but rather to make sure safety is adequately considered.

“Most of us veterans, of course, served in the Armed Forces in order to protect our Constitution, and swore an oath to do so,” Smith says. “We’re not trying to weaken or undermine anybody’s individual rights. But we are trying to review and make sure that our collective rights as a community are not jeopardized by an unwise public policy decision.”

Smith adds that the group’s decision to appeal the permit was made before the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which thrust the issue of gun control into the national spotlight.

Chaney says the issue of mass shootings was discussed by the Planning Commission, but again is an issue outside the panel’s purview.

Smith says the Veterans for Peace would like the Assembly to immediately suspend the permit if the appeal is accepted. Chaney says permits typically stay active during an appeal, but developers continue working on projects at their own risk.

The Assembly will decide whether to accept or reject the appeal at its meeting on Monday.