Florida mayor fights legal backyard gun ranges in the 'Gunshine State'

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Every Wednesday afternoon, Doug Varrieur steps into his backyard in the Florida Keys, aims his .380 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol and fires shots that ricochet through city halls around the state.

Varrieur, 57, discovered a little-noticed part of Florida law which prohibits local governments from restricting gun rights in any way, and in December he set up a personal gun range on his property in a residential subdivision.

Neighbors were outraged by the live gunfire, but their surprise was nothing compared to that of municipal leaders, who were shocked to realize there was nothing they could do about it.

"The rational gun owners I speak to realize this is lunacy," said Michael Ryan, the mayor of Sunrise, in southeast Florida.

Ryan, a lawyer by trade, is one of numerous city and county leaders now trying to regain some control over recreational gunfire in their communities, particularly in dense urban zones.

Palm Beach and Broward counties in south Florida have a lawsuit pending to overturn the law, noting that it forced them to rescind restrictions, for example, on taking guns into child care facilities.

But in a state known as the "Gunshine State" for its loose gun laws, few expect the Republican-dominated Florida legislature to make any changes.

"You can slice and dice it anyway you want, but there's an accident waiting to happen," said Rick Ramsay, the Sheriff of Monroe County, where Varrieur's gun range is located.

Ramsay and Ryan point to the death of 69-year-old Bruce Fleming in Deltona near Orlando on Christmas morning. Fleming was struck apparently by accident by a shotgun blast from a neighbor's property. The shooting remains under investigation.

Varrieur, an author of diet books, set up his shooting target on December 26 after he and his wife bought his-and-her pistols for Christmas, and baulked at the 70-mile round trip to the nearest commercial gun range to practice shooting.

Under Florida Statute 790, gun control is solely under state, not local, jurisdiction. The only state restriction on recreational shooting on private residential property is that the bullets cannot fly over a paved public road or an occupied dwelling, and that shots cannot be "reckless or negligent."

Legislators in 2011 put teeth into the law by imposing a $5,000 fine and authorizing the governor to remove from office any local government official who attempts to restrict gun use.

Although nothing in the state law specifically required him to try to block errant bullets, Varrieur mounted his target on a 7 X 7-foot backstop which he installed against a 12-foot-tall shed. When he fires his weapon, Varrieur is shooting in the direction of a canal used by boaters to reach open water.

Varrieur said he stations his wife and father on the edge of the canal to warn him if a boat is coming. And he said he informs the sheriff's department of when he will be shooting.

Recognizing that other gun owners will want to follow his lead, Varrieur now offers upon request instructions for building his backstop and his personal set of "Varrieur Range Rules," which recommend weapons should not exceed a .357 Magnum and a ban on alcohol consumption.

"My passion is to make sure they are safe, safe, safe," Varrieur said.

After seeing a news account about the controversy in the Keys over Varrieur's gun range, mayor Ryan wrote in February to Governor Rick Scott asking him to explicitly promise not to exercise his authority to remove from office any local public official who imposes reasonable restrictions on target shooting in residential neighborhoods.

Scott, through his general counsel, responded, telling Ryan it would be "prudent" to wait until the Palm Beach and Broward lawsuits are resolved.

The Broward lawsuit complains that the law is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers by giving the governor the ability to remove local officials from office. Under current law, the governor is only allowed to suspend local officials.

Ramsay said he believes a shooter could be arrested if a deputy witnesses a bullet flying over his or her property lines under the "reckless or negligent" prohibition in the law. But Ramsay said he has instructed his deputies to seek legal advice before attempting an arrest.

"The irony is if someone wants to put in an addition to their home or an in-ground pool, they have to come through code enforcement and zoning. Here we can't say anything," Ryan said.

(Editing by David Adams and Nick Zieminski)