In Issaquah, hearing gunshots at school is the norm

By Brian Hagenbuch
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The Issaquah Sportsmen's Club. Credit: Jason Burrows

By Brian Hagenbuch

On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of high school girls lobbed softballs back and forth on a field behind Issaquah High School, the pop of the balls in their mitts mixing with the crack of nearby gunfire.

Just a few hundred feet away from the softball diamond — separated only by a cyclone fence, a dirt road and a narrow stand of firs — is the Issaquah Sportsmen's Club.

From outside both the high school and adjacent Clark Elementary School, the sounds of booming volleys of gunfire from the club’s shooting range echo across sports fields, playgrounds and parking lots from Wednesday through Sunday, when the range is open.

"The noise is the most disconcerting to people, especially if they're not familiar with the environment," said L. Michelle, the executive director for communications at the Issaquah School District.

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Clockwise from top right: The Issaquah Sportsmen's Club, Issaquah High School and Clark Elementary School. Credit: Google Earth

With the lesion school shootings have left on our national psyche, those unfamiliar with the environment may be inclined to duck and cover.

The two schools sit at the base of the heavily-wooded slope of West Tiger Mountain off Front Street in Issaquah. The sportsmen's club — an outdoor facility situated so shots are fired toward the mountain, away from school facilities — is wedged between the mountain and the schools. There are no houses close by, and the scene feels insular: two schools and a shooting range, tucked into a pocket of evergreens.

The club has been at its current site since 1921, while the elementary school opened in 1952 and the high school followed ten years later. Across Front Street there is also a middle school which is slated to be moved to the current site of Clark Elementary.

Onti Rosin is a mother of two girls at Issaquah High, and she has been active in the planning process of the new middle school.

She sat in planning meetings for a year while teachers, administrators, school board members and planners — “thoughtful, best-practices people” — discussed everything from the best desk size to the ideal amount of light for optimal student learning.

“I was so impressed,” Rosin said, “but they’re not addressing the gun range, the elephant in the room.”

Rosin pushed the board to trade rural land so the Sportsmen’s Club could relocate to an area away from school facilities. No deal seems to be in the works, leaving the club and the schools to try to make the best of the decades-long coexistence.

"They have even shut down out of sensitivity when there were school shootings ... I couldn't ask for anything more," said Todd Wood, the principal at Clark.

Wood added he often fields questions from parents who are concerned when they first hear the noise, but said a simple explanation usually placates them.

Rosin, however, is far from placated.

“I don’t think it’s a good message to send to the kids, to desensitize kids to this noise,” she said.

Both schools have taken noise abatement measures in classrooms, and Wood said elementary school kids "generally" cannot hear the noise from inside the building.

"It's not something that impacts the kids at all," the principal assured.

At the gun range, Leif Steffny, an Issaquah native and gun safety instructor who works at the Sportsmen's Club, was intrigued to hear what school officials had to say about the range.

"I've always wondered what they think. Unfortunately, we don't have much communication with them, good or bad," said Steffny.

Steffny said he and his colleagues worry about the noise, but he does not see any danger in having a range in close proximity to the schools. He invites students to join them to learn gun safety, and added it was once normal to have school rifle teams.

In fact, basement rifle ranges were not uncommon in public schools either, but have ebbed since WWII. Ranges that have survived in schools — solid numbers are hard to come by — are generally considered disruptive relics, and have survived under intense criticism.

In 2013, however, the newly-opened North Atlanta High School divided public opinion when a shooting range was built at the $147-million mega school. The range was built for the school's Junior ROTC program, as well as a riflery team.

But in the era of school shootings, the first question is: Is it even legal to have a gun range next to — or in — a school? It turns out, in most places, it is.

The Gun-Free School Zones Act (GFSZA) prohibits firearms within 1000 feet of federally-funded schools, but the exemptions are numerous, and include clauses for state-licensed gun owners and any guns approved for scholastic activities.

With no safeguards from the GFSZA, Jonathan Hutson, the Chief Communications Officer at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the issue comes down to local zoning regulations. And while regulations ban liquor stores, strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries from proximity to public schools and daycare centers, gun ranges are, in most cases, legal. That means students, staff and parents who object to gun ranges next to their schools are left to slug it out in protests and court disputes.

In 2014, students at George Washington Carver High in Rancho Cordova, California protested the construction of a shooting range being built just 250 feet from their campus. Similar conflicts have played out in Connecticut, North Carolina, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Texas.

But no conflict of the sort seems forthcoming in Issaquah. When asked if she had support in her efforts to relocate the gun range, Rosen said she was only speaking for herself.

“All these schools surrounding a gun range. It’s just craziness,” she added.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch recently relocated to Seattle after spending a decade in Argentina, where he worked for Reuters, Time Out and wrote for theater and film. He grew up in the Methow Valley.