U.S. Coast Guard seeks firing ranges on Great Lakes

The U.S. Coast Guard is making waves on the Great Lakes with a plan to establish 34 live-fire zones where its crews can practice with machine guns mounted on their vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard is making waves on the Great Lakeswith a plan to establish 34live-fire zones where its crews canpractise with machine-guns mounted on their vessels.

A period for public comment on the plan was to have expired on Fridaybut was extended after requests from boaters, tourist operators andothers for more time. Comments will be accepted for another 60 days, Petty Officer Bill Colclough, a spokesman for the coast guard's Cleveland office, told CBC Online.

The 7.62-mm light machine-guns, which can fire 600 rounds a minute,have been madestandard equipment on the coast guard's Great Lakes cuttersas a result ofterrorism jitters and a quiet reinterpretation of an arms-control treaty signed after the War of 1812. The treaty, between the United States and Britain, limited each side to four armed vessels on the lakes, each equipped with an 18-pound cannon.

The U.S. cutters previously had no mounted weapons, althoughtheir crewswere equipped withpistols and rifles. When the new guns made headlines earlier this year,the Canadian Coast Guard said it reserved the right to arm its own vessels.

The plan,published Aug. 1 in the U.S. government's Federal Register, would create "safety zones"where civilianscould be barred from time to time while the coast guard fires its guns. Each zone would be at least 5.5 kilometres off shore, the document says.

"These safety zones are necessary to protect vessels and people from hazards associated with live fire gun exercises," it says.

"Such hazards include projectiles that may ricochet and damage vessels and/or cause death or serious bodily harm."

Three zones on Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario would have three such zones, Lake Erie four, Lake Huron six, Lake Superior seven and Lake Michigan 14. Coast guard officials have said they would be well away from the international border, but some — near Sault Ste. Marie,Mich., for example — would be in areas where Canadian boats might wander.

The coast guardwas transferred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and encouraged to take a more muscular approach to external threatsas part ofareorganization following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Officialshave said they expect to use each live-fire zone only two or three times a year, a day or two each time, but the plan itself mentionsno limits. They dismissone possibleenvironmental objection, saying the copper-and-lead bullets would sink in deep water and could not be eaten by bottom-feeding waterfowl.

Some boaters have warned that amateurs could wander into machine-gun range if they fail to read official Notices to Mariners or listen to announcements onmarine radio.

George Freeman, who runs fishing charters out of Ludington, Mich., said he and other Lake Michigan captainsworry about losing access to fishing grounds.One of the zones is in waters he regularly fishes.

"I know they need to have a place to shoot," he told the Detroit Free Press."We could go elsewhere, but we need to be able to go where the fish are."

Comments on the plancan be sent to the Commander, Ninth Coast Guard District, 1240 East 9th Street, Room 2069, Cleveland, Ohio 44199.

With file from the Associated Press