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Posted: March 23, 2013 7:16 p.m.

Shooting laws up for discussion

Discussion has raged in the wake of Sheriff Ezell Brown’s proposal to restrict where guns can be fired in Newton County, but Brown emphasized Friday that the proposal is preliminary and that he and the Board of Commissioners are actively seeking input.

Brown said the issue is people are not safely firing guns in the county’s more dense areas, particularly in western Newton County, but recreational gun users and hunters, particularly those in rural areas, are worried the gun restrictions may unfairly restrict them as well.

A committee is being formed to discuss how to solve this issue, Brown said, and will have representatives from the Board of Commissioners, the public, the county attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Office.

“We now have a problem that exists in the western side of the county. As sheriff it’s my responsibility to bring that to the attention of lawmakers as well as citizens,” Brown said. “It’s up the (Board of Commissioners) and the committee to come up with the language (for the ordinance).”

Brown said his initial proposal may simply be disregarded and he’s fine with that; he just wants a solution to be found.

The initial proposal, presented to the board at their annual retreat in February, called for more restrictions on where guns could be fired, including outlawing the firing of a gun:

• Within 350 yards of any residence, place of public assembly, worship, business or road (the sheriff pointed out that this was how the county ordinance read prior to its relaxation to a 100-yard limit in 2006)

• Within many zonings, including R1, R2, R3, single family residential; MSR, mixed use single family residential; DR, single and two family residential; RMF, multi-family residential; MHP, manufactured home park; MHS, manufactured home subdivision; OI, office institutional; CN, neighborhood commercial; CH, highway commercial; CG, general commercial; M1, light industrial; and M2, heavy industrial

• Within all other zoning districts (not mentioned above) without a backstop (a device meant to stop or redirect bullets).

In addition, the sheriff’s initial recommendation called for outlawing night shooting by limiting firing to between 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

The sheriff also specified that state-regulated hunting would be exempted from the above laws.

Commissioner John Douglas previously expressed concern that the laws as proposed would restrict a lot of hunting on agricultural land, and he questioned whether BB and pellet guns would fall under the law.

The reason for the proposed law change is the high number of calls related to guns being fired in neighborhoods and other high-density areas, particularly in western Newton County.

In 2011, there 616 calls for guns being fired, a number that increased to 714 calls in 2012. As of Feb. 7, the sheriff’s office had already received 80 calls, which if extrapolated out for 365 days would be 768 calls.

In a follow-up interview Friday, Brown said that 16 of the 714 calls in 2012 were related to actual stray bullets hitting a house or other property — all of those 16 calls came from western Newton County. Sheriff’s deputies arrested nine people for reckless conduct related to calls for guns being fired in 2012, and they have arrested three people for such calls in 2013 to date.

Brown said the majority of such calls of guns being fired don’t result in any charges, namely because there is no concrete evidence that can lead to any investigation.

While many calls are likely related to criminal activity, a lot of them are also likely tied to recreational activities.
There is no way to tell how calls would be reduced under such an ordinance change, but Brown said not only would making the minimum firing distance 350 yards limit places where guns could be fired in more dense areas but the change would also raise awareness of the danger of recreational shooting in such areas.

“I think we can cut down the calls; this is where the law abiding citizens may realize, ‘I am creating a problem,’ with recreational shooting,” Brown said.

While the reckless conduct laws already on the books give law enforcement broad ability to arrest people for dangerous behavior, Brown said there are still some cases where people may be shooting legally in the western side of the county and be a danger to others because of how far bullets can travel.

Given all of the discussion and questions, The Newton County Farm Bureau is hosting a public forum at 7 p.m. Monday at the Historic Courthouse, where residents will be allowed to speak for up to two minutes.

Residents will be required to sign-up on a sheet prior to the meeting, and Farm Bureau president Keith Mitcham said Monday will not be the time for personal attack or outbursts.

“This is all about public safety; there is nothing about the banning and control of firearms,” Brown said. “We’re not doing anything to impede hunting.
“I have brought (the issue) to the attention of the board and the greater part of the community, and I’m hoping we can move forward with some common sense approaches.”

For a copy of the current ordinance and a copy of the proposed ordinance changes, go to CovNews.com.

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