Pasco County's million-dollar gun range dispute

Pasco deputies train to stop killers and save lives. Sheriff Chris Nocco wanted his deputies to have an effective place to train. That is why the sheriff’s office asked state lawmakers for a million dollars to spruce up the firing range at Pasco Hernando State College. The legislature responded and the money spruced up quite a bit.

“All the wood in here has been replaced. The targets are designed to move. They've extended some of the concrete, the lighting systems you see here now to allow night fire and limited light fire didn't exist," said Pasco Captain Tait Sanborn.

Pasco deputies said they need to train with real bullets, and they understood this to be a condition for the college receiving the state money to upgrade its range. However, the college demanded compressed-air bullets instead. That triggered a long-running dispute over the million-dollar gun range.  

"I was thinking this is why our citizens do not respect their governments in a lot of ways," said Florida Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson. "It was very disappointing for us to be asked for a request of any amount of money, but a million dollars? And then after we had the enhancements done, the requests were honored, they couldn't use that facility."

For years, the college said deputies could not use lead bullets because lead could contaminate the ground -- which the sheriff’s office disputed, because the bullets fire into a trap system, which feeds into pipes, which feed into barrels that collect the lead, while machines suck up lead particles that may be in the dust.

"There's no reason for lead ammunition to ever reach the grass here," Captain Sanborn said.

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However, Pasco Hernando College President Dr. Timothy Beard feared errant bullets could fly past the range, bypass the trap system then lodge into the dirt.

The sheriff's office maintains allowing live ammo was part of the deal for getting the million tax dollars, but Dr. Beard does not remember it that way.  Either way, the Pasco sheriff said shooting frangible bullets (comprised of compressed copper powder) are not acceptable for training deputies because it can affect a shooter's aim and a trainer's ability to score the shots -- because frangible means it breaks up on impact.

“It's very hard to evaluate a deputy sheriff on the accuracy when the equipment they're using has inaccuracy built into it," said Sanborn.

By the time the college and sheriff finally settled that dispute, it cost taxpayers extra, in the form of a second gun range. The county identified a separate plot of public land and the sheriff budgeted another $350,000 to build a different range.

As the sheriff petitioned the county for the new range, the college spent an additional $80,000 protecting its land from lead, then told the deputies they can use live ammo after all.

So taxpayers wound up with two gun ranges for the price of two. The Pasco Sheriff's Office says it can use both, because it needed some additional capacity anyway.