Counter-terror expert warns planned shooting range could harm Defence community

Currawang farmer John Reardon, Neera Stephenson, whose property is just 600 metres from the firing site, and Greg Akhurst, who works for defence, is joined by other residents who do not want the firing range in their town. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Currawang farmer John Reardon, Neera Stephenson, whose property is just 600 metres from the firing site, and Greg Akhurst, who works for defence, is joined by other residents who do not want the firing range in their town. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A counter-terrorism expert has slammed a proposal to develop a shooting range between Canberra and Goulburn that would train police in lethal force.

Defence veteran Roger Henning, who led the response to the Port Arthur massacre, said he was "horrified" to learn the specialised live fire centre was planned near Collector, where there is a strong Defence community, including an art retreat frequented by soldiers.

The range has been proposed by the main provider of shooting facilities to the Australian Defence Force, Australian Target Systems, to meet a "key market need" as police ramp up their long-range firearm capabilities in the wake of the Lindt cafe siege.

The company, run by army veteran Paul Burns, says the proposal is a "unique" and "significant opportunity to contribute to Australia's national security", and is supported by the Australian Federal Police.

CEO of Australian Targeting Systems Paul Burns outside of a mobile firing range that enables students to train under virtual scenarios. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

CEO of Australian Targeting Systems Paul Burns outside of a mobile firing range that enables students to train under virtual scenarios. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

While the range has sought council permission to operate five days a week, with some weekend and night shooting, actual firing frequency would depend upon demand for training, Mr Burns said. The company would also use the site to "innovate" and test its products before export.

Mr Henning, who now runs crisis management consultancy firm Homeland Security Asia/Pacific, agreed such training was necessary, but said the location of the range had not been thought through.

"This venture shouldn't be anywhere near people coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, including myself," Mr Henning said.

"I still jump if someone drops a plate or a car backfires. Imagine living next door to something that sounds like a war zone!

CEO Paul Burns inside a shipping container housing a modern firing range. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

CEO Paul Burns inside a shipping container housing a modern firing range. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"There are so many other places you could do it, in Dubbo or out in Wellington where there's nothing around.

"This a typical Canberra solution, the whole thing is about conveniance."

Neighbours also fiercely oppose the plan, claiming the "loud and alarming" gunshots will shatter the peace of the rural community, affect local business and livestock, and even pose a bushfire risk.

Several locals who shared their concerns with Fairfax Media were serving or former Defence members. Gary Poile of the Collector Community Association said a "high percentage" of people living in the area were known to have military backgrounds.

Geoff Grey, who runs an artist's retreat sometimes visited by soldiers about three kilometres from the range, was left with severe hearing damage after more than three decades of service.

"Too many sporadic noises and my brain goes haywire, [there's] a painful and confusing cacophony of noise that leads to fatigue and irritability," he said.

"It's the reason I live in the bush."

When NSW Police carried out two weeks of shooting training at the site last year, locals said the gunfire ripped through the small town of Collector, about four kilometres away. It also disturbed Mr Grey at his home and retreat.

He fears a permanent range will destroy his business, where he and his wife record music.

"We'd have to seriously consider moving," he said.

"[This] has already been affecting my anxiety and depression from the service."

An environmental noise assessment conducted for the company in 2017 found gunshot noises at the range were within residential guidelines and would often be "barely audible" from nearby properties.

But Defence public servant Greg Akhurst, whose property borders the range, is one of many locals who dispute this finding.

"The report says you can't hear it from my house. I was trying to work from home when they [did the training], which is double-glazed, and it scared the crap out of me. I couldn't get any work done."

After 25 years in the army, Mr Akhurst said he, like many in the community, had moved to the country to "get away from gunfire".

"We've always had the odd single shots from hunting and vermin control, that's part of living here, but we're talking about repetitive combat shooting," he said.

The noise assessment only measured single shots, claiming "it is unlikely in practice that multiple shots will occur simultaneously".

Local sound expert Tim Duck said that assumption was rendered defunct by the report's own admission that "the type of training, number of personnel and demand for usage...was not yet known".

The company's chief operating officer Lee Bath said the range's location was important strategically because the heads of counter-terrorism were "just down the road" in Canberra, but she had not heard from locals directly about the effect gunfire could have on serving and former ADF members living nearby.

"We know people are concerned but we haven't been able to talk to the community much at all so far," Ms Bath said.

"In terms of an [impact] 2 or 3 kilometres away, we have no comment. We just have to go back to the [noise] report."

Ms Bath said she hoped a public meeting with the community and the company next week would help clear up some "misinformation" about the project which had been circulating in town.

"We've already created a niche Defence industry in Albury...and we'd like to keep as much of the dollars in the local community as we can," she said.

While some locals said the range could be "good for the town" and boost business, others disagreed.

"They haven't demonstrated any real economic benefit for the area," Mr Akhurst said.

"When the police came through to train, they stayed at Goulburn police academy, not here."

Mr Burns informed immediate neighbours of his plans to turn the 5,000 acre property into a shooting range when he bought it with his family in July 2017.

A council spokesman said councillors had received many calls about the range over the past five months, but were yet to form an opinion of the development application, received in December. Submissions are open until March 5.