LYNCHBURG — The first phase of a sprawling shooting range spread across nearly 600 acres, located a few miles from Liberty University’s main campus, is now open to students and soon will be available to the public.

“We’ve been hearing for a long time that students want a place like this to shoot at,” said Brad Butler, planning coordinator in Liberty’s Planning and Construction Department.

Officially, the shooting range, which opened to Liberty students last week, has been named the Liberty Mountain Gun Club. The shooting range is located off Camp Hydaway Road in nearby Campbell County.

Though LU is still working to assess risk management, school officials say the shooting range should be open to the public in a matter of weeks. But for now, LU’s sport shooting team and students are breaking in the new outdoor gun range. Currently there are pistol, shotgun and rifle ranges.

Future plans for the facility include a field house with locker rooms for the shooting team, offices for the Liberty University Police Department, and a classroom for firearm safety training and youth programs. A paintball course and additional pistol and shotgun ranges also are in the future for LU.

“We’re going big,” Butler said.

The total estimated cost of the project is $3.2 million.

LU students can come to the course and check out a gun to use, not dissimilar to a library book.

The shooting range also will be open to law enforcement agencies for training at reduced rates.

Butler said the school also plans to host collegiate shooting contests and other competitions, such as the annual Virginia Commonwealth Games, which moved to LU in the summer of 2016.

Dave Hartman, director of the shooting range and team, was brought on board in early 2017 to help develop the program. Since then he’s been working to build the team up in its inaugural season.

According to the National Rifle Association, more than 300 U.S. colleges have shooting teams, including programs at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Hartman said that Liberty — which allows faculty, staff and students to carry guns on campus if they have a permit and school approval — is a gun-friendly university, which helps with recruiting.

“If you look at the positive atmosphere that Liberty has towards guns and gun rights, you can’t help but have a greater pool of individuals that enjoy the shooting sports,” Hartman said.

The team’s online roster currently lists 61 members split across four disciplines: pistol, shotgun, rifle and three gun. Three gun competition is timed and includes pistols, shotguns and rifles.

Hartman said LU is in the process of developing a conference with teams in nearby states.

“The different teams from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware will be our primary competitors,” Hartman said.

Roster members are split between a competitive travel team and shooters still in development.

Chloe Sterner, a freshman from Hanover, Pennsylvania, is the only woman on the travel team.

Sterner began shooting in high school and has five years of competition under her ammo belt.

She encourages other women to give the sport a shot.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s a male-dominated sport; you should just go for it,” Sterner said.

Casey Williams, a freshman from Suffolk, also is a member of LU’s shooting sports travel team. In his first year of competitive shooting, Williams said he’s impressed with the facilities offered by LU.

“It’s incredible. It does not get any better than this,” Williams said.

He also believes involvement in shooting sports could improve conversations around gun control, which has been in the national spotlight following numerous violent incidents in recent years.

“It’s not a dangerous sport. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s a community,” Williams said.

His coach echoed the sentiment that shooting sports can provide an educated understanding of the Second Amendment, noting many American gun hobbyists safely use firearms on a daily basis.

“This [shooting range] is an amazing opportunity to not only educate people in safe and proper gun handling, but also their Second Amendment rights,” Hartman said.

For Butler, Liberty Mountain Gun Club is a major step forward since his days as an LU student.

“When I was a student here back in the early ’80s, we kept our shotguns and guns in the car, and we snuck over to where the medical school is now and shot tin cans off of fence posts,” Butler said.

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