D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said yesterday that he will not reopen the police firing range at Lorton, where submachine gunfire last week showered a nearby Fairfax County neighborhood with stray bullets, narrowly missing two children.
Ramsey, whose department owns and supervises the weapons training facility at the Lorton Correctional Complex, again apologized for the May 24 incident and said that after considering a number of options, permanently closing the outdoor firing range was in everyone's best interest.
"I asked myself a very simple question: Would I allow my 12-year-old son to play in the back yard of the houses that were struck by live fire from our range?" Ramsey said during a WTOP radio show yesterday. "It took a nanosecond to know that I would not."
The decision elated residents of the Newington Commons subdivision, where bullets struck at least 12 homes and three cars on the afternoon of May 24. One bullet shattered the window of a dining room where a father sat holding his 8-month-old daughter.
"We're relieved," said Kathleen Owens, who had a slug lodged in the siding of her house a few feet from where she and her two small sons had been playing 20 minutes before the bullets were fired. "It has been stressful all week thinking about the possibility of the range reopening."
The incident occurred as officers from four police agencies were conducting a "fallen officer" exercise, lying on their backs and firing 9mm ammunition into the air. Investigators estimate that more than 240 rounds were fired, some of which flew out of the practice area, across a field and into the subdivision about a mile away.
Ramsey immediately closed the range pending an investigation, which was continuing. Yesterday, he made the closure permanent.
Wednesday, Fairfax police said they had found at least a dozen more bullets in Newington Commons in addition to the 15 originally reported. Some were found on the decks of homes and in parking areas.
Angry residents had accused police of playing down the incident initially and of indicating that fewer rounds had been fired. The neighbors were further angered this week when they learned of an incident 16 years ago in which homes in nearby Newington Forest were pelted with bullets coming from Lorton.
After that accident, Fairfax County sued in an attempt to close the firing range. D.C. officials resolved the dispute by agreeing to move the range elsewhere on the 3,200-acre prison grounds. It was from this relocated site that the bullets in last week's incident were fired.
"They averted what could have been mass murder -- twice," said Neal McBride, who first pushed to have the range closed in 1983. "I'm so glad it's finally closed."
Ramsey said yesterday that he considered enclosing the facility, building taller berms or restricting the types of weapon drills, but none of those actions "could guarantee safety" for families living nearby.
"I could not be 100 percent assured that this type of incident would never happen again," he said, noting that when the current range opened, the surrounding area was not as populated. "The only way to provide the total guarantee," he said, "is to end firearms training at the facility permanently."
The chief ordered the outdoor shotgun and pistol ranges closed, but Lorton's indoor firing range will remain open, as will the obstacle course and climbing wall.
The closure of the outdoor range could leave some law enforcement agencies in a bind, particularly SWAT teams that practice with heavy weapons. Ramsey said he is consulting with the U.S. Capitol Police and the U.S. Park Police about opening a joint firing range at a local military base.
CAPTION: Van Trinh examines a bullet hole in her Lorton home -- one of about a dozen houses hit last month by stray bullets from a police training exercise.