OSHA targets shooting range

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued a citation, along with a proposed fine of $111,000 fine (OSHA press release here), against Illinois Gun Works–a gun store and gunsmith business which has a shooting range and teaches safety classes. HT Instapundit and David Codrea. In a November 2009 article for the NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom, I warned about the dangers of President Obama’s nomination of David Michaels as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (head of OSHA), based on Michaels’ well-established record as an anti-gun advocate.

Many of alleged OSHA violations at the safety training range involved noise exposure for the instructors. Among OSHA’s suggestions were to eliminate training in “larger caliber” handguns such as “9 mm Luger and/or .45 Colt”  and substitute “handguns of smaller caliber,” such as .22LR. And “Prohibition of any shotguns and/or rifles firing in the firing range.” (p. 6). In other words, eliminate training for all firearms except those which are least likely to have the stopping power to be effective for self-defense. And ensure that the range can never provide students with personal instruction in the use of the firearms which constitute the vast majority of firearms which people actually own.

Among the “violations” noted in the citation: An instructor on the range wore Howard Leight Impact Sport Electronic Earmuffs, which allegedly provided insufficient noise protection. (p. 11). I’ve never used the Howard Leight brand, but I have used electronic muffs from Peltor and from Dillon. Electronic muffs are the perfect choice for hearing protection and range safety, especially for an instructor. When the muffs detect a sound spike, they instantly shut down, reducing the noise to a comfortable level. Unlike passive muffs, electronic muffs do not block sound at other times, so it is much easier for the instructor to communicate with students, and to hear everything going on in the area. Indeed, normal sounds (but not gunshots) can be amplified by the muff’s electronics, if the user so chooses.

My Peltor muffs have a Noise Reduction Rating of 19 decibels, while the Howard Leight muffs used by the Illinois Gun Works instructor had a NRR of 22db. I have previously used passive muffs (consisting of foam padding around the ears, with no electronics); passive muffs with a NRR in the low 20s allow more sound than I want, and I find that for passive muffs, a NRR of 29 or higher is much better. However, whatever the rated NRR of the electronic muffs, I can tell you that electronic muffs are far superior at sound reduction compared to passive muffs with much higher ratings. My Peltors with a NRR of 19db make gunshots much quieter than do my passive muffs with a NRR of 30db. Yet Illinois Gun Works is being fined because an instructor used superior hearing protection.

Here’s another violation: “A gun range instructor conducting shooter instruction was observed reaching down on the range floor to collect a loaded handgun cartridge. The employee was not wearing any hand protection such as gloves. The gun range floor was contaminated with lead. The gun had misfired and it required manual cycling of the barrel slide to remove the defective round which then fell on the gun range floor.” (p. 22). This is absurd. Range floors are necessarily going to have lead dust on them. In the course of live fire instruction, there are inevitably going to be some misfeeds, which result in a round falling to the floor. You don’t leave live ammunition lying on the floor. And if you’re going to be helping students clear misfeeds (step 1: press the small button which releases the magazine so that it drops out of the gun), you can often do so better with bare hands with gloves. After any time on the shooting range, it is essential to wash hands thoroughly with cold water. The notion that picking up a round from the floor is some kind of special danger is ridiculous.

One of OSHA’s suggestions for reducing instructor exposure to lead (p. 26): require the use of ammunition without lead primers and/or without lead bullets. But if you’re teaching people how to use the guns which they actually own, those people need to use the kind of ammunition that they will actually shoot. Firearms can perform quite differently with different types of ammunition. Semi-autos in particular may have a much higher rate of misfeeds with one type of ammunition than with another; one of the important variables in this is how strongly the user holds the grip (a lighter grip can increase misfeeds, but a grip that is too tight can reduce accuracy). The best way for a user to find out which ammunition works most reliably with her particular gun, accounting for the way she actually holds it, is to try different types of ammunition. And it’s all the better if those tryouts have the assistance of an instructor. The OSHA “safety” suggestion to use only unusual and expensive types of ammunition would harm gun user safety.

Another violation: employees used Hoppes #9 solvent for cleaning guns (Hoppes makes lots of gun cleaning material and accessories), but Illinois Gun Works had not relabeled each Hoppes bottle to list all the hazardous chemicals therein. (pp. 54-55). Gun cleaners have solvents, and so the cleaning should be done in a place with good ventilation. But it’s hard to see much practical benefit in requiring a store to put new labels on every one of the scores of Hoppes bottles which employees will use during the course of a year.

Not everything in the OSHA citation is as senseless as the items described above. And gun ranges are certainly not the first business in the United States to find themselves being punished by OSHA for things that have little or nothing to do with employee safety. However, if the heavy fine and the citation against Illinois Gun Works are followed by similar enforcement against other gun ranges, there may be many fewer ranges soon.