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Guns on the lakefront, lead in the water: should the Lincoln Park shooters be banned?

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As is often the case with this sort of dispute, the first shot was fired away from the public view.

"The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency sent us a letter saying it appears the Lincoln Park gun club was violating the law," says Nancy Kaszak, general counsel for the Chicago Park District, which owns the property on which the gun club operates, but not the club. "We did some investigation and came to the conclusion that the gun club was, in fact, violating eight statutes. They were, and are, shooting lead into the lake, and as a result, the Park District could be held liable."

Kaszak recommended that if the gun club couldn't satisfy the legal requirements--which, apparently, it cannot--the Park District should evict it from its current site near the intersection of Diversey Parkway and Lake Shore Drive. The Park District's five board members agreed, and on September 14 they unanimously adopted a resolution that could shut the club sometime after January 1.

Nothing's ever so easy. The gun-club members and their lawyer countered with a public-relations campaign so craftily and passionately waged that maybe, just maybe, they may get to stay in Lincoln Park. In any event, the next few months should provide even more histrionics, for the stakes are guns and Lake Michigan--two powerful provokers of passion.

"There's a group of people that's against guns, that's all," says Rufus Taylor, president of the gun club (whose official name is Lincoln Park Traps). "They would rather not see a gun club in the park. They're against the shooting activity, and they're just using the environment as an excuse."

"The gun club keeps camouflaging the issue," says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Park, a not-for-profit Park District watchdog group. "They say that they are integrated--that they have blacks, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnam vets, and women--and that's not the issue . They say that people who oppose them are elitists, and that's not the issue. They say that it's all about guns, and that's not the issue. The real issue is that they are violating the laws that are supposed to protect the lake from pollution. Any other issue they raise is a fraud intended to divert attention from that fact."

No one can say for certain why, at this moment in history, the gun club should get so much attention, particularly from city and state officials. For better or worse, it has operated in Lincoln Park since 1912. Its members could never hide their existence if they wanted to; their guns make too much racket.

"We've got 385 members," says Taylor, "We operate under a no-fee payment. That means the Park District owns the land, but we don't pay them rent. We have yearly dues that are used for upkeep. And we don't bother anyone. We're just people who like to shoot. I was born in Chicago, but I was raised on a small farm in Michigan. I like to hunt. When I moved back to the city, I had no place to hunt. Then I discovered the gun club and started to shoot for recreation."

Park District officials and their lawyers, of course, have a different point of view.

"There are two kinds of shooting at the club: trap and skeet," says Andrew Perellis, an expert in environmental law who was retained by the Park District for this case. "In trap, the target is thrown straight out over the water, so you are shooting as it moves away from you. With skeet shooting, the target goes from side to side, so you have to pan. In both cases, the target is a clay pigeon.

"The weapon is a shotgun; it uses a shotgun shell. The powder in the shell is separated from the lead shot by wadding and contained within a casing. When you shoot the shotgun, it propels the shot out toward the clay pigeon; as part of that process, the wadding can be thrown out of the shell as well."

Bathers and boaters frequently complain of shell waddings washing up on beaches and docks, Park District officials say. At least 400 tons of lead have settled on the lake bed just east of the gun club, not to mention the remnants of hundreds of thousands of clay pigeons.

"We tested the clay pigeons and found traces of antimony, arsenic, nickel, lead, zinc, silver, and chromium in them," says Kaszak. "Now, I'm no environmental expert. But I am a lawyer. It is my job to protect the Park District against liability. In this case, the gun club is violating eight [antipollution] statutes with maximum fines in the thousands of dollars. All of these fines could be imposed on us because, as owners of the land, we were essentially allowing or permitting the gun club to dump into the lake."

Worse yet, Kaszak worries that someone may accidentally shoot a boater or swimmer, although she concedes there is no record that this has ever happened.

"We believe that the Park District should not wait for a serious accident to occur before taking action to assure public safety," Kaszak wrote in a report on the matter. "Currently, about 1,000 boats use Diversey Harbor and several hundred use Belmont. In addition, an increasingly large number of small boats, windsurfers, and jet skis use the lakefront. Although the lake area east of the Gun Club is marked with buoys, the Marine Department has received reports that discharges from the Club have fallen on passing boats east of the buoy marker, particularly during strong westerly winds."

In July, Kaszak and her boss Jesse Madison, executive vice president of the Park District, recommended that the board revoke the gun club's permit. Within days, the gun club counterattacked. They hired Christopher Cohen--once alderman of the 46th Ward, now a savvy and well-connected downtown lawyer--and the real fight was on.

"Gun Club Under Fire" was the headline in the North Loop News, a neighborhood newspaper, echoing the gun club's line. The real issue here wasn't the gun club, Taylor announced at a press conference orchestrated by Cohen. The real issue was the lakefront "elitists," who propound policies that "smack of socialistic tendencies," and would "systematically do away with recreation on our lakefront."

Suddenly, the Park District was on the defensive.

"Don't let purists control the lakefront," opined one editorial in the Sun-Times. "The Chicago Park District staff is beginning to look like a lot of spoilsports," added Crain's Chicago Business. "What's next on [their] hit list? Tennis? Golf? Bird-watching? Maybe they'll go after those barbecuers." One of the Tribune's reporters traced the decision to close the gun club to the growth of Friends of the Parks--"from a dissident voice under the administration of former Parks Supt. Edmund Kelly to a major role in policymaking since Kelly was ousted by the late Mayor Harold Washington."

"This is a way for one woman to get her name in the papers," says Taylor of Kaszak, who in 1987 waged an unsuccessful campaign for alderman of the 46th Ward. "Nancy has done a terrific job of selling the [board members] a bill of goods. If she succeeds in removing us, then she can say, 'I'm the woman who saved the park.' It's all political."

Kaszak scoffs at these allegations, and Taylor's charge does seem a little preposterous. The gun club is not a rousing issue among north-lakefront voters, so closing it is not likely to win Kaszak--or any politician--many votes. After all, the club is at a point where the lake is only a few hundred feet or so from exhaust-belching cars speeding along Lake Shore Drive. And the club's booming shotguns can't be much more obnoxious to passing pedestrians than the cyclists whizzing along the asphalt path. If ever there was an appropriate lakefront spot for a gun club, this is it.

Of course, Cohen did not raise this point at an August 24 public hearing. Instead he offered 24 witnesses--including blacks, women, and Asian Americans. "I wanted to show them that this wasn't some exclusive club," Cohen explains. He also questioned the validity of the laws the club violates.

"Are we discharging something into the lake? Yes we are," says Cohen. "But are we polluting? That's another question. No one has done any tests to show that we have contaminated Lake Michigan. The Park District brought in a Dr. Lopez who tested the clay pigeon, but not the water. Dr. Lopez testified that the pigeon was inert. That means it does not react with other chemicals. So we don't know if the gun club has contaminated the lake.

"Now, there's the issue of lead poisoning. The water outside the gun club is 16 feet. I'm not telling you there was never a duck who ate that lead, but it is unlikely. It is also conceivable that a bottom-feeding fish could eat the lead and get it into his system. But that lead is now underneath so much sand down there that the fish, most likely, can't get to it.

"It's true that the Metropolitan Sanitary District has a law that prohibits discharges into the lake. It says you can't put anything in the lake, even if it is a sweaty baby, Perrier water, or a brick of gold bullion. That's what I said at the public hearing. I said, 'You can't put a sweaty baby, Perrier water, or a brick of gold bullion into the lake,' otherwise it's considered pollution. You're not even allowed to pick stuff off the bottom of the lake and put it back in. That's considered pollution, too. Does that make sense? No. But it doesn't matter if it makes sense, because it's a law that's on the books. And it's true if the Park District wishes to adhere to that law, as silly as it sounds--we are stuck."

"I don't think any environmental laws are silly or useless," Tranter counters. "I think we have a responsibility to protect the water for our generation and future generations. This is not some minor disposal; this is very relevant. You know, there's a gun club, the Remington Gun Club [in Stratford, Connecticut] that the Connecticut EPA recently closed. They had found there were 3,000 tons of lead in the water there, and 48 million clay pigeons. That club was in operation for about 60 years--the Lincoln Park club has been around for even longer. This is not some innocuous discharge."

Apparently, the Park District board agrees. On September 14 they unanimously approved a resolution that gives the gun club 90 days to prove they are not violating any laws. If they can't prove that, they will have to close.

"I give Kaszak credit; she is a shrewd lawyer. That was a very craftily worded resolution," says Cohen. "They are basically asking us to prove that we will never violate a law. Can you ask the Chicago Police Department to verify that you will never be prosecuted for drunk driving? Of course not. In effect, they are shutting down the gun club under the guise of giving us 90 days to work things out."

There is talk of compromise, though on widely contradictory terms. Tranter has offered to help the club move to another park away from the lake. For their part, the gun clubbers have plans to remove waddings from the beach, dredge lead from the lake bottom, and even devise ways to keep lead and clay out of the water (one suggestion is to have a floating net).

However, they also intend to remain right where they are, and they are not without hope. The state legislature recently passed a law that increased the Park District board's roster from five to seven members. Since there is already one vacancy on the board, acting mayor Eugene Sawyer will soon appoint three new members. That sets the stage for yet another battle in the great gun-club war--this one to be fought in the City Council.

"The mayor nominates the board members, and the council has to approve them," says Taylor. "Well, the City Council passed a resolution 49 to nothing in favor of keeping the gun club in its present location. That sends a message. I think some of the aldermen will be asking the new board appointees what their position is on this issue. It could mean a whole new board. It could mean a whole new vote. This fight's not over yet."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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