AUGUSTA — A bill to protect and promote access to outdoor sport shooting ranges across Maine drew sometimes emotional testimony from supporters and opponents Tuesday evening before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The bill would ban laws or lawsuits that would limit the operation or cause the closure of existing shooting ranges, but it wouldn’t insulate ranges from lawsuits based on negligence or recklessness in the operation or use of the range.

Supporters of the bill said more than 100 sport shooting ranges across the state are threatened by increasing rural development, challenging both their futures and Maine’s hunting heritage.

“Many ranges were initially built in unpopulated areas, away from homes and neighborhoods,” said Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, the bill’s sponsor. “Over time, things have changed and people have intentionally built homes in proximity to operating sport shooting ranges.”

With about 40 people in an overflow audience, the committee heard testimony from 13 supporters and seven opponents of the bill. The committee is scheduled to deliberate and likely vote on the bill during a work session March 2 that’s scheduled for 1 p.m.

RANGES UNDER THREAT

Fish-and-game clubs in Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Lisbon, Orrington, Phippsburg and West Gardiner recently have generated concerns, complaints or opposition from neighbors, the bill’s supporters said.

“Shooting ranges are under assault,” said Robert Jordan, president of the Lisbon Fish & Game Association. “We’re fortunate we only have a few neighbors that complain.”

As towns like Lisbon move to enact ordinances to limit shooting ranges, Jordan said, “the alternative is to have more people shooting in their backyards.”

Tammy Walter, president of the Cape Elizabeth Rod & Gun Club, described how a large housing development sprang up next door in recent years and its residents pushed town officials to pass an ordinance aimed at “shutting us down.”

“We need you to pass L.D. 1500 so special interest groups cannot unreasonably influence town officials and employees from advancing their self-serving agenda, which is to close all shooting ranges in Maine,” Walter said.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, was one of several supporters of the bill who questioned why people who don’t like guns would buy or build homes near shooting ranges.

“Well-to-do, mostly out-of-state interests have knowingly bought up and developed valuable land surrounding fish-and-game clubs and their shooting ranges across mostly suburban Maine communities,” Trahan said in his written testimony. “These individuals, having learned they cannot shut down shooting ranges using noise as an excuse, have turned to outright legal and municipal harassment.”

HOME RULE CONCERNS

Opponents of the bill took issue with a portion of the proposal that would allow shooting ranges to expand membership and events without limits. Olaf Ellers spoke on behalf of a dozen families that have lived near the Phippsburg Sportsmen’s Association for 10 to 20 years.

Ellers described current law pertaining to shooting ranges as well balanced, saying that it protects them as pre-existing uses but allows municipalities to regulate noise produced by expanded activity.

“In recent years, (the sportsmen’s association has) held occasional turkey shoots, which are very loud, but only occur about once a year,” Ellers said. “If the sportsmen’s association were to expand their shooting activities, it would make it impossible to live in our homes and it would destroy our property values.”

Garrett Corbin, legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association, also spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it would carve out special exemptions and privileges that would give shooting ranges unrestricted and everlasting land use rights.

“This level of special exemption does not apply to any other land use activity,” Corbin said.

Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, submitted written testimony sharing the concerns of several constituents.

“I think we need to be really careful anytime we see a measure that could restrict the principle of home rule,” she wrote, “even with something as fundamentally important to our state as the Second Amendment and our long tradition of hunting and target shooting.”