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Liberty University is planning to open a state-of-the-art shooting range on campus next fall as part of the conservative Evangelical Christian School's commitment to promoting gun ownership and firearm sports.
University president Jerry Falwell Jr. said that Liberty's new complex will feature pistol, rifle and shotgun facilities as well as an archery range built into the mountainside of the 7,000-acre campus near Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell said the project will result in one of the most expansive firearms ranges on any U.S. college campus. The blueprints call for at least $1 million in construction and landscape improvements that will provide new opportunities for student clubs and athletic teams.
"This is one of the examples of how Liberty is unique and different," Falwell said in an interview. "We really had the perfect setting for our own competitive shooting range."
The shooting range will be the latest high-tech addition to a campus that already features a year-round snowless ski and snowboard center, an indoor ice-skating rink and an equestrian facility.
Founded in 1971 by Falwell's father, an evangelical pastor who nurtured the Moral Majority political movement, Liberty has risen to become the epicenter of Christian higher education and is now one of the largest universities in the country by enrollment, buffeted by a surging online program.
The university, under Falwell, has increased its focus on public safety, and it has allowed students, faculty and staff to carry concealed handguns on campus. Last year he established a free course for those interested in earning a Virginia concealed carry permit. Virginia prohibits the carrying of firearms on public school property, but because Liberty is a private university it is exempt from that law. More than 1,600 people have taken the course at Liberty, Falwell said. But just 20 students out of the 8,000 who live on campus have received the proper documentation from the state police to carry a concealed weapon, he said.
Falwell said that the concept for the new shooting range came from student interest in firearms. He noted that one of the more vibrant and engaged student groups on campus is dedicated to safeguarding the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
"We have a very pro-Second Amendment student body," Falwell said.
Falwell said that he was nervous when he first spoke about the school's firearms policy at a gathering for parents whose children were considering Liberty for their higher education.
"I was a little timid about telling parents about it because I thought some would be worried," Falwell said. "But I never got such enthusiastic applause."
Falwell said that after meeting with National Rifle Association executive vice president and chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre, the university decided to move forward with its plans for the shooting range complex. Brad Butler, Liberty's planning coordinator, said the NRA provided crucial expertise on best practices for safety as the school examined designs for the project.
Jason Brown, an NRA spokesman, said the organization frequently supports "institutions across the country by providing range guidelines and technical advice and grant-funding for citizens to participate in shooting sports."
Falwell said that he hopes the shooting range will give students the opportunity to practice their aim. Falwell said that one of the reasons for the university's aggressive posture on carrying firearms is so that the campus will be prepared in the event of an "active shooter" scenario. Falwell pointed out that that the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech occurred just 85 miles west of his campus; he said the "gun-free zones" that encompass other Virginia universities make them vulnerable.
"It's where the terrorists are most likely to strike," Falwell said, adding that students and Liberty families approve of the university's stance on firearms. "They don't want to see anything happen here like at Virginia Tech, where nobody was able to fire back."
Butler agreed that the shooting range will help students prepare for disaster.
"With president Falwell's bold leadership, we're going to avert something of that magnitude should evil like that ever come to this campus," Butler said.
Falwell got his own concealed-carry permit about two years ago, and he said that he began carrying a .25-caliber pistol because of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, last year. He had a pistol with him on stage while giving a convocation to the Liberty student body in December 2015, and during that speech he urged students to get their own permits so they would be able to stop Islamist terrorists before they strike: "Let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here," he said at the time.
He still occasionally carries his own handgun and is quite the shot, he said. During one recent visit to a shooting range, Falwell said he was able to hit the bull's eye at 50 yards with his .38 caliber snub-nosed Smith and Wesson.
Jordan Stein, founder and president of Students at Liberty for Gun Rights, said that the new shooting range will be a welcome addition to campus.
"Liberty has a strong passion for the Second Amendment and a great respect for firearms," said Stein, 21, a senior from Asheboro, N.C. who is studying government politics and policy. "It will continue that tradition and teach how to responsibly use firearms and to responsibly use them for good and the defense of others."