The application was put forth by Paul Chapman, owner of North Georgia Firearms & Ammunition, who had hoped to move his ammunition assembly store from its current site in Fort Oglethorpe to property at 6941 North Highway 27 and expand to include an outdoor firing range.
In less than a week after Chapman put forth his application, more than 600 petition signatures and letters of op-position flooded the Chickamauga Planning Commission via the business directly opposite the property in question: the Academy for Little People, a popular daycare owned by Tony and Sharon Armour.
During the planning commission meeting Thursday evening, April 19, dozens of parents, grandparents and com-munity members, most of whom had children or grandchildren who attend the Academy for Little People, voiced their concerns about the safety of building a firing range less than 400 feet from a preschool and daycare center.
Fears put forth ranged from stray bullets to noise pollution to possible lead contamination. Parents overwhelm-ingly stated that, were the firing range installed, they would feel compelled to withdraw their children from the Academy for Little People, putting the business in danger of going under.
“I have talked to people who have students and kids wanting to go to this school and they have said they will not take their kids to this school just for the chance of a gun being that close to them,” said Jessie Wynn, a Chickamauga parent whose son attends the Academy for Little People.
“My son went to Mountain View, could not seem to learn a thing. He went to this school, and he excelled...My daughter, two years from now, I hope will be there, if it’s there. If they are allowed to stay open,” he said.
“We will move our children. They will go out of business. People will not keep their babies there,” added Chickamauga resident Marisa Brockway.
Former Air Force officer Tiffany Smolik agreed with the prevailing sentiment. “I know every parent that I’ve talked to will pull their children out. And that business will go under, and we will struggle having to find a new daycare. They will lose jobs, having to go and work at a different daycare when they put their lives into this.”
Chapman’s plans for the firing range included safety precautions such as an overhead made of industrial rail-road ties, a 10-gauge steel bullet trap and deflector as well as a 10-foot-high dirt berm behind the targets.
“You cannot physically stand in that range in any point in time or place and fire a weapon of any kind and get it outside of your lane. The chance of a stray bullet getting out of there is almost nothing,” he said.
“If everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and acting responsibly in the range, everything will be completely safe.”
Citizens, nonetheless, questioned the conditional nature of Chapman’s “if” statement and his ability to control his customer’s level of responsibility.
Chapman assured the crowd that his range would follow all safety protocols, including background checks and proper permits for customers, as well as disallowing loaded weapons anywhere except the protected range.
“You say you’re not going to let them walk into your store with a loaded gun. How can you say they’re not going to pull into your parking lot with a loaded gun?” asked Jessie Wynn.
“Everyone doesn’t act responsibly,” said Smolik. “You put a gun in a human being’s hands, there is room for human error. Someone in my basic training got shot. In basic training in the United States military, someone got shot because someone was irresponsible, and someone will be irresponsible there. Someone at every firing range always is.”
Sharon Armour, owner of the Academy for Little People, presented a document to the Chickamauga Planning Commission describing numerous incidents of stray bullets from firing ranges, including an arrest of a shooting range owner in March of this year for “bullets leaving the range and landing on residents’ property.”
In addition to questions about the responsibility and trustworthiness of Chapman’s potential customers, the as-sembled crowd was concerned about the noise that a firing range would produce.
Chapman attested that the children in the Academy for Little People would not be able to hear the gunshots while inside the building. Many members of the public disagreed, and further stated that even if the hearing were only limited to outside playtime, it would still be detrimental to the children.
Armour testified that strong noise, such as would be caused by nearby gunshots, could cause delayed learning and speech in the young children at the daycare and in the surrounding neighborhood.
“It’s appalling that it would even be considered to have the noise that close to these children,” she said. “It is just not right. It is not good for our children developmentally to be subjected to this amount of noise,” said Beverly Brady, a speech language pathologist for Walker County Public Schools
“I know these children won’t be right there beside it,” said Smolik. “But 356 feet away, there’s a good chance they’ll hear it. And they’ll hear it repetitively. Over and over and over. And it’s not just the sound...the mental an-guish that these children will get from hearing that. My ears would ring when we lived on base and the firing range was at the far end of the base. We could hear it in our homes on base that far away, and we’re talking a lot more dis-tance than what we’ve got going on here.”
Oppositions were also raised due to the proposed location’s close proximity to residential houses, the nearby Covenant Church and the Trails End Ranch, where numerous horses are boarded and children often ride and take lessons.
“I deal with horses all day long,” said David Morgan, an employee at Trails End Ranch. “Rapid fire, any kind of a gunshot, if you’re on the back of a horse, it’s liable to throw you off, it’s liable to take off with you, and we have a lot of people who come out to go horseback riding who are not experienced enough to know what to do if that hap-pens.”
Furthermore, the location is near the edge of the Chickamauga Battlefield Park, which also raised ire with resi-dents.
“I just think that an open range is incompatible with a national park,” said Cathy Cook, superintendent of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
A packet of hand-drawn diagrams distributed by Chapman outlining his basic idea for the shooting range did lit-tle to appease the crowd.
“Your diagram, where you worked so hard to avoid shooting toward the church, will be shooting into my back-yard where my dog and my grandchildren play freely,” said James Miller. “So you took no consideration into what’s on the other side.”
Miller noted that the planned range is a mere 250 feet from his home, even less than the distance between the proposed firing range and the daycare.
“That’s not a chance that I’m willing to put at risk, that my wife or I could walk out one day to get the mail, to play with the grandkids, to harvest the garden, and get hit by a bullet.”
“Paul (Chapman) is only one man. There’s only so much he can do. I do not discredit the man for what he’s trying to do. I do not believe that the location he has chosen, 250 feet from my living room, for this business, is an appro-priate location.”
“The location, location, location,” said Wynn. “I would love to come to your firing range, and if you find another location, I will be one of your first customers, I promise you. I’ll pay yearly membership.”
At the end of the evening, the Chickamauga Planning Commission passed motions amending zoning articles that would allow an ammunitions assembly shop and a firearms range to be included in the city. However, the condi-tional use permits Chapman applied for in order to operate his business and build a firing range at the proposed location were disapproved, to rousing applause from the crowd.
The disapproval from the planning commission will be recommended as an official course of action to the Chickamauga City Council during its meeting May 7, when a final decision on the matter will be declared. The council is expected to take the planning commission’s recommendation without pause.
“The people spoke,” Chapman said. “I didn’t really realize we were upsetting that many people to that extent.”
Chapman has stated that he will no longer pursue the issue further and will wait until another location presents itself to possibly build a firing range elsewhere.