The Florida Legislature may have prohibited local governments from banning gun ranges on residential properties, but that does not stop insurance companies from curtailing the activity by declining coverage.
Three Florida Keys insurance agents told The Citizen that underwriting companies currently don't ask if a person is operating a gun range on his or her residential property, but the companies would most likely not cover the property if they knew the activity was going on.
As awareness grows that the state allows gun ranges on residential properties, the question could make its way to property insurance application forms, Keys insurance agents Norman Fuller and Grimilda "Grimi" Betancourt said.
"This could open it up to have companies revising their applications," Betancourt said. "I know I wouldn't allow it. It's a liability."
"This might become an issue," Fuller said. "It never came up before."
Underwriting companies do ask if a property owner has a trampoline, or operates ATVs or other recreational vehicles on his or her property.
One agent, who wanted to remain anonymous, did inquire about the issue, via email, with an underwriting company that provides coverage through Lloyd's of London and Alterra. The company's representative responded: "We would not offer liability through Lloyd's and Alterra due to the shooting range," according to the email exchange.
Every Wednesday, Big Pine Key resident Doug Varrieur and his friends fire guns on a vacant lot Varrieur owns next to his home. Varrieur does limit shooting to one hour a week, and he contacts the sheriff's office prior to firing. He also built a backstop to catch the bullets.
News of Varrieur's gun range have gone viral on the Internet since The Citizen reported it two weeks ago. The story has since been picked up by other local and national media. CNN has also contacted Varrieur about doing a story, Varrieur said.
According to state Statute 790.15, it's legal for people to discharge guns as long as it's not done in a "reckless" manner, or over a public road or occupied dwelling. The statute is vague and does not dictate how long, or when, a person can fire guns, how a range must be set up, or what caliber weapons can be fired.
The Legislature passed a law two years ago making it harder for local governments to regulate the discharging of guns. Local elected leaders and police officers can be fined $5,000, and removed from office, if they establish gun regulations.
Varrieur does not have a mortgage on the vacant lot, and does not carry insurance for it, so an insurance prohibition would not impact his range, he said. But he is not opposed to local regulations dictating hours; requiring an operator to complete a gun safety course; and having a range inspected by local law enforcement.
Varrieur met Tuesday with Sheriff Rick Ramsay to discuss the issue. Ramsay is opposed to gun ranges like Varrieur's in residential neighborhoods. He is concerned about accidental discharges, or bullets ricocheting and going into other properties, harming or killing people.
Varrieur suggested the sheriff's office offer gun safety classes for people with ranges, and offer to guide people on how to construct a range.
"The sheriff could be the first sheriff to take a proactive step and educate people on how not to be negligent," he said.
But Ramsay declined the idea, arguing that it could be construed as him endorsing the idea of ranges on residential properties. Also, Ramsay did not feel comfortable giving advice on the construction of gun ranges, as neither he nor his deputies are engineers, the sheriff said.
"We could be liable if the design is flawed," Ramsay said.
Ramsay told Varrieur he did not feel his range was safe, as it was not totally enclosed.
"There is no way to contain the bullets," Ramsay said. "Most ranges have walls on all sides."
Prior opinions have upheld the state's right to legislate the gun-range issue. State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, has been researching the issue, but did not file a bill to amend the current legislation.
The deadline to file a bill for the March legislative session was last week.
The county commission will vote today on sending a request to the State Attorney General's Office asking if a local municipality has any control over the location and operation of residential gun ranges. The commission meets at 8 a.m. at the Harvey Government Center, 1200 Truman Ave., Key West.