On the easternmost outskirts of Austin, Texas, there's a gun club where I used to shoot skeet. Families came on weekends and made a day of it—there were picnic tables, vending machines and barbecue grills. A dog slept on the floor of the clubhouse. The adjacent property was a runway for radio-controlled airplanes, which we could see buzzing around beyond the range of the light target ammo in our shotguns. The outdoor skeet fields were neither as thunderous nor as claustrophobic as the indoor firing range in town. I felt safe there.

At that time, I owned a cheap 20-gauge Winchester semiautomatic, but the club would allow members or their guests to borrow the 12-gauge Berettas they kept on a rack near the front desk. One day the rack was empty, so I asked the woman working the register what had happened to the loaner guns. The club wouldn't be lending them out anymore, she said, at least not for a while. "We had an accident," she whispered.

For half a second I was surprised, before I realized that accidents—or worse—were inevitable. Nobody at the club had ever asked me or my guests if we knew how to handle a firearm, and we'd never been subjected to background checks before borrowing a shotgun.

State laws vary, but this is the way most firing ranges operate throughout the country—they require customers to show identification, fill out a waiver of liability and sign a form indicating that they're mentally competent (which isn't verified by anybody). It's certainly not a foolproof system—and in addition to a few accidents, there have been more than a few suicides.

Nationwide, the scope of the gun-range suicide problem is hard to estimate. In online discussion forums, gun enthusiasts swap stories about incidents at various ranges. But when accounts turn up in local media, gun-range suicides are often described as anomalous, unprecedented events. In June, a man walked into the Guns, Fishing & Other Stuff store in Vacaville, California, signed a waiver, rented a handgun and shot himself in the store's basement firing range. The local Fox affiliate ran the story with an editor's note, explaining that, though the station usually doesn't report on suicides, they "made an exception in this case because of its bizarre nature." But gun-range suicides actually aren't unheard of in California. Less than two weeks after the Vacaville shooting, another gun range suicide made tabloid headlines—Andrew Stern, husband of model Katie Cleary, killed himself at a shooting range in the San Fernando valley. Following a death this January at the Los Angeles Gun Club, the Orange County Register scoured coroners' data from just three counties and found 64 cases of gun-range suicide over a 12-year period. Other incidents have been reported recently in Massachusetts, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Utah and Oklahoma.

Still, the number of people who shoot themselves at gun ranges is small enough to be overlooked—even politicians who propose expanded background checks on gun sales never talk about regulating gun rentals. But family members of the deceased have called for action, and so have some of the gun ranges themselves. In the polarizing politics of gun violence, this issue has elicited the rarest of responses: collaboration.


In 2009, among letters describing herself as the antichrist, Marie Moore left a note apologizing to Shoot Straight range in Casselberry, Florida, for the trouble she would cause there. Moore had been involuntarily institutionalized in 2002, which means she should have failed a background check had she tried to buy a gun. But she wasn't buying—she was renting.

In security camera footage obtained by the Associated Press, Moore can be seen standing behind her adult son as he takes aim at a target downrange. She raises the rented revolver to the back of his head and pulls the trigger. She then turns the gun on herself, while the shooter in the adjacent lane—with whom Moore had been chatting just a few moments earlier—looks on in disbelief. Three weeks later, another man completed suicide at the same gun range, also using a rented gun.

Shoot Straight subsequently suspended the rental program at all of its locations, telling the Orlando Sentinel that rentals wouldn't resume until a procedure was in place to perform background checks on rental customers, similar to those performed for gun buyers through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Matt Valentine teaches writing and photography at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written about gun violence policy for the Atlantic and Salon.