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Posted: March 26, 2013 10:27 p.m.

Residents against gun firing restrictions

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Listen to comments from the public about the proposed restrictions to the firing of a gun in Newton County. The actual introduction to the forum starts at 1 minute and 12 second mark.

Residents packed into the Historic Courthouse Monday to listen to discussion about potentially changing county laws governing where, when and how guns can be fired, and 25 of the 26 people who signed up to speak were against making local laws more restrictive.

The crux of the matter seems to be how the proposed ordinance would affect hunting and recreational shooting, and whether the ordinance would even help the sheriff achieve his goal of cutting down the firing of guns in the county’s most densely-populated areas, namely western Newton County.

Among the biggest complaints Monday was the practicality of a proposed distance limit for firing weapons.

While hunting would be exempted, one area that would not be is that recreation shooting and target practice. Several residents spoke Tuesday about how they shoot on their properties and how impractical a 350-yard requirement would be.

The question of whether the distance limit applies to the shooter’s buildings as well has also been sent to the county attorney’s office.

Jeff Hall, who lives off Bethany Road in southwestern Newton County, said he shoots skeet in his backyard and taught his two girls to shoot as well.

He believes that many of the 911 calls by residents complaining of a “discharge of firearms” are due to the fact that many residents in western Newton County are from the metro area, where a gunshot is a dangerous sound.

Among the two dozen or so speakers, there was plenty of talk about the proposed ordinance’s other restrictions.

The initial proposal, presented to the Board of Commissioners at its annual retreat in February, called for outlawing the firing of a gun:
• Within 350 yards of any residence, place of public assembly, worship, business or road (the current ordinance has a 100-yard limit; however, 350 yards was the standard prior to 2006)
• Within several zonings, including medium density single-family residential, R1, R2, R3 and MSR; high density two-family and multi-family, DR and RMF; manufactured home parks and subdivisions, MHP and MHS; office and commercial, OI, CN, CH and CG; and industrial, M1 and M2
• Within all other zoning districts, agricultural, agricultural residential and rural estate residential without a backstop (a device meant to stop or redirect bullets) and proper field of fire to prevent danger to neighbors
• During the night (from 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise).

However, the proposed ordinance does list several exemptions, including one new exemption for hunting in accordance with state regulations.

The question being asked is how broad the exemption would be. Would hunting be allowed in every type of zoning?
The state regulations for hunting are many and require hunters to take various safety precautions, said Walter Lane, hunter development program manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The county’s attorney did not immediately respond Tuesday to an email seeking clarification of the hunting exemption.
Sheriff Ezell Brown has said all along that his intent was not to restrict hunting, but only to reduce unsafe recreational firing in western Newton County.

To put the distance of 350 yards of a residence into context for landowners, if a house sat in the middle of a circular piece of property, that property would have to be 80 acres or larger before a person could begin to fire a gun legally under the proposed ordinance.

As far as a straight line, 350 yards is 10 yards shorter than the length of three football fields placed back to back (football fields are 120 yards include the end zones).

An owner of a local pawn shop said his number one source of business is gun sales, and when a person returns a gun, he has to take it home and test it to make sure it works. He currently has a range in his backyard where he shoots into a natural cliff face backstop. If the new ordinance passed he would have to move locations and pay to install a new backdrop, added expenses that are tough for a small business owner.

Several other people spoke against the ordinance including Todd Holbrook, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, which has headquarters in Newton County, and Larry McSwain, a former department of natural resources employee, who was on the citizen committee that originally came up with the 100-yard limit in 2006.

Holbrook said it would be hard to demonstrate an increase in safety by increasing distance requirements; several gun experts said Tuesday that many high-powered guns can travel much farther than 350 yards.

McSwain suggested that the county start over with a new panel of citizens and officials, who could come up with a new set of recommendations.

McSwain and several other residents said there are multiple state laws that already restrict the type of firing taking place in western Newton County. State laws governing the firing of a gun outlaw firing a gun within 50 yards of a public highway or street and on the property of another person without permission. In addition, the reckless conduct is very broad and can be used to arrest people who unnecessarily endanger the safety of others.

Brown agreed in an interview with The News last week that reckless conduct does cover many offenses, but he said the problem needs to be addressed somehow and felt the proposed changes would raise awareness of the dangers of recreational shooting in densely-populated areas.
However, he also said last week, and reiterated Monday night, that his initial proposal is absolutely up for change.
In 2011, there were 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 last week 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.

Many other residents said Monday they wouldn’t be able to protect their property, cattle or crops from predators; however, exemptions already exist for the killing of dangerous animals and nuisance wildlife, as well as the protection of person and property.

Brad Ward, a Georgia field representative with the National Rifle Association, said Tuesday his office has been inundated with calls about the proposed change in Newton County, receiving more than 300 such calls during the past couple of weeks. He said he believes the issue is the vagueness of the article, and he said he even had trouble getting clear answers as to the rationale of the ordinance. He said many counties don’t even directly legislate the discharge of firearms, choosing to simply use the state regulations; he said some counties regulate based on noise or other aspects.
Brown said after public comments were made that he would now let the lawmakers handle the crafting of the ordinance and he would enforce whatever was passed as local law.

Both the sheriff and county Chairman Keith Ellis said the purpose of these public comments was to help shape a new ordinance and that they were looking forward to hearing feedback. Ellis said a committee has been formed, which consists of both public officials and members of the public; the only members publicly identified were county commissioners Lanier Sims, who represents District 2 in western Newton County, and Levie Maddox, whose District 5 contains the eastern half of Covington, Porterdale and northeastern Newton County.

Ellis suggested that people call those commissioners with any comments and concerns moving forward. Maddox can be reached by email at lmaddox@co.newton.ga.us and on his cellphone at 678-502-8929, while Sims can be reached at lsims@co.newton.ga.us and 770-787-7876.

Ellis said the county is planning to revisit the issue, hopefully with perspective from the committee, at an April 2 work session at 6 p.m. at the Newton County Judicial Center impaneling room; the meeting is being moved to accommodate a larger crowd.

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