Milton-Freewater club's numbers reflect national boost in gun sales

The East End Rod and Gun Club nearly doubled its membership to 800 over the last year.

Bill Saager fires his rifle during the Cowboy Action Shooting competition at the East End Rod and Gun Club in Milton-Freewater.

Bill Saager fires his rifle during the Cowboy Action Shooting competition at the East End Rod and Gun Club in Milton-Freewater. Photo by Michael Lopez.

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MILTON-FREEWATER — A surge in gun sales nationally and in the Walla Walla Valley over the past year has led to explosive growth at the East End Rod and Gun Club.

Background checks nationally for gun purchases peaked in December 2012, with the FBI processing more than 2.8 million firearms background checks that month, compared to 1.9 million during the same period a year earlier.

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And all of those new local gun owners needed a place to shoot.

Enter the EERGC, which saw its membership nearly double over the span of a year from about 450 members before November’s presidential election to more than 800 members this fall, according to club President Verl Pressnall.

That growth has been a double-edged sword for the club, with large numbers of new shooters leading to some failures to comply with the range’s rules.

Pressnall said there has been trash left on the range, vandalism and hawks being shot.

“The more people you have, the more upkeep there is,” Pressnall said. “On the other side of it, the more people there are on the range, the less vandalism there is. You’re hardly ever out here alone to get away with something.”

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Shooters participate in Cowboy Action Shooting competition being held at East End Rod and Gun Club in Milton Freewater.

The most common form of vandalism has been shooters using high-velocity rifles on targets meant for pistols or lower-powered cartridges like the .22 long rifle.

The influx of new shooters has led to more revenue for the club, but about $30 of each $50 membership fee goes to cover liability insurance, and income from new members has not kept up with rising insurance costs.

“We may have to increase our membership fees,” Pressnall said.

Pressnall said the club had discussed capping the number of members in the past, but he doesn’t envision that becoming a reality. Instead, he said the club could possibly limit its hours to when range officers are present, whereas now the club is open from 8 a.m. until 30 minutes before dark.

Despite the challenges associated with a larger membership, Pressnall said he was happy with the club’s growth.

“I’m really excited to see this many people out here,” Pressnall said, pointing out that between 70 and 85 of the new members are women.

“Women are the fastest growing segment of shooting sports,” he said.

Tucked into the rolling, wheat-covered hills east of Milton-Freewater, the club offers the nearest full-service shooting range to Walla Walla. It has grown steadily over the years from fewer than 200 members in 2007, when Pressnall became club vice president, to more than 400 in 2012 before its growth spurt began.

To handle the influx of new shooters the club began requiring range orientations before new members receive their membership cards. It set up a more secure gate system and trained new NRA-certified range officers to monitor activity on the range.

Pressnall said the surge in membership has also occasionally led to waits for a spot on the rifle range.

The club has been around in one location or another since 1947, but has become more popular since moving to its current location on Cemetery Road in the early ’90s.

The club initially focused on trap shooting, but has grown to include pistol, rifle, archery and muzzleloader ranges, five-stand clay pigeon shooting, and a cowboy-action shooting area.

Most recently, the club added a $13,000 roof, funded mostly by an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife grant. It covers the rifle range benches to protect shooters from rain, snow and intense sunlight.

Pressnall said the club hopes to eventually build a classroom and possibly expand to include a trap shooting facility.

Ben Wentz can be reached at benwentz@wwub.com or 526-8315.

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