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Our View: Coast Guard shows it knows when to hold 'em

The old "shoot first, ask questions later" routine shouldn't have come up with the United States Coast Guard on the Great Lakes earlier this year. But it did when the military's home-waters branch started target practice on the Great Lakes in the...

The old "shoot first, ask questions later" routine shouldn't have come up with the United States Coast Guard on the Great Lakes earlier this year.

But it did when the military's home-waters branch started target practice on the Great Lakes in the summer, using machine guns that could spit ammo two to three miles and at a can't-get-out-of-the-way-fast-enough clip of 600 rounds per minute.

To the surprise of virtually no one, safety concerns erupted, including from U.S. Reps. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., and Dave Obey, D-Wis. In September, the Coast Guard put the training sessions on hold and announced it would hold public hearings on the matter. Also to no one's surprise, members of the public testified they weren't thrilled with the idea.

The hearings now concluded, the Coast Guard has agreed to suspend "indefinitely" its live-fire training, the two Congressmen announced yesterday. For that, the Coast Guard, an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, deserves to be commended.

But don't think for a moment the whole Great Lakes shooting gallery debate is over. The Coast Guard "will take the time to get this right," as Rear Adm. John E. Crowley Jr. said yesterday as part of a prepared statement. That means live-fire exercises could be back, but this time with a commitment to "addressing the concerns that training be safe, preserve the diverse uses of the lakes and protect the environment."

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So will that mean no lead bullets? Anglers already are discouraged from using lead sinkers and other tackle made from lead because the material can be hazardous to the lakes and to fish.

And will the Coast Guard really be able to figure out a way to effectively alert all anglers, boaters and other users of the Great Lakes about live-fire exercises so they can stay out of the line of fire? Already, in September, a pair of pleasure boats witnessed, luckily without incident, Coast Guard members firing machine guns at floating targets. That happened near Two Harbors.

Publishing notices of exercises in the Federal Register, as the Coast Guard has proposed doing, couldn't guarantee reaching anyone outside of the register's proofreading staff. Neither could notifying marinas and the media, as the Coast Guard said in September it would "try" to do.

Coast Guard officials have argued that shooting exercises on the Great Lakes are critical in the battles against drug smugglers and terrorists. Waves and other intangibles just can't be recreated at a shooting range, they've argued.

They may have a point, but target practice carried out in a way that can't guarantee public safety just isn't something to be questioned later if a fatal shot lands first.

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