The county’s gun-firing ordinance discussion got a reboot at Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners work session as the citizen committee looking at the ordinance gave some preliminary findings which appear to address many people’s concerns.
County attorney Jenny Carter, who has also been working on a revised ordinance, presented the committee’s findings and also clarified some public questions:
• Hunting would be totally exempt from any local gun-firing laws; hunters would be able to hunt anywhere in the county in any type of zoning as long as they follow state law, which has its own yardage, and many other safety, requirements.
• Night hunting would also be allowed; again, it would only have to follow state law.
• As far as sport shooting and target practice — the main legal uses that would be restricted — the committee is expected to keep the current restrictions, which prohibits firing a gun within 100 yards of occupied buildings without written permission of the property owner.
• The proposed, more restrictive, 350-yard restriction is no longer being considered.
• BB guns, air guns, pellet rifles and similar guns may be exempted from firing restrictions in some way.
• Any recreational gun-firing restrictions are not expected to be restricted by zoning; the committee felt zoning was too broad of a restriction. Instead, the committee is looking at possibly restricting firing based on either lot size (possibly restricting firing on properties less than two acres) or population density (this could be based on census blocks that have more than 520 people per square mile).
• All current exemptions, such as those that allow guns to be fired anywhere as needed for protection of property and person, including the disposal of dangerous and nuisance animals, would be kept.
The committee is expected to propose keeping current limitations on firing a gun into a house or vehicle or from a house or vehicle, as well as a newly proposed restriction on night firing (night hunting would be exempted and subject to state law).
People would not be allowed to fire into or across another person’s property without permission, as is stated in the current ordinance.
As far as the sheriff’s proposed recommendations that would require a backstop and proper field of fire; Carter said the committee is still looking at this proposal. A backstop is a device meant to stop or redirect bullets, while “field of fire” refers to where a gun is being aimed.
The committee, which is comprised of six citizens, county commissioners Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox and one sheriff’s office employee, Major Morris Jones, will continue to explore more options. The group is expected to take up to 90 days before returning to the Board of Commissioners with a proposal.
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson asked Sheriff Ezell Brown if he was comfortable with the proposed changes, since Brown was the one who originally proposed making changes due to the high number of 911 calls related to the firing of guns. There have been 1,330 such 911 calls in the past two years.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction. I think this is just evidence what we can do when we come together as a committee, as a group, as concerned citizens of this county,” Brown said.
Give your take
The citizen committee members were revealed Tuesday night; Maddox provided phone numbers and emails for members after receiving their permission:
• Stan Edwards Jr. (District 1 near Mansfield; 770-385-8432; email@example.com)
• Julius Hays (District 1; 770-363-4599; firstname.lastname@example.org)
• John Head (District 2; 404-314-0924; email@example.com)
• Ed Hutter (District 5 in the Cornish Mountain area; 678-222-8165; firstname.lastname@example.org)
• Kevin Norman (District 2; 770-616-7441; email@example.com)
• Marcus Stowe (south of Almon community; 678-618-1343; firstname.lastname@example.org)
In addition, below are the contact information for the county officials:
• Lanier Sims (District 2; 404-787-2852; email@example.com
• Levie Maddox (District 5; 770-595-3179; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Major Morris Jones (678-625-1409; email@example.com)
In addition, Ernie Smith, who works in the county’s Geographic Information Systems department and is responsible for many of the data maps used in recent discussions, will also provide staff support to the committee.
Maddox said that Edwards and Head had agreed to serve as the spokesmen for the committee.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said that 53 percent of the population in western Newton County, the area that sees the most 911 calls about gunshots fired, is female and she encouraged the committee to get input from women.
A female District 3 resident did volunteer to be on the committee after the meeting. Maddox said Thursday he was also planning to submit two more names for consideration but noted decisions were up to the committee.
Resident Larry McSwain, who worked on the current gun ordinance back in the mid-2000s, recommended a member of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources be added as well, since the agency trains 15,000 people annually on firearm safety and hunting regulations.
Chairman Keith Ellis encouraged the committee to make the meetings open to the public.
District 1 Commissioner John Douglas questioned whether there was even a problem. Out of the 1,330 calls, 12 people were arrested in 2011 and 2012. The question was whether those 12 were arrested under the county ordinance or existing state law. Carter said the county ordinance could be used in cases where pleas are entered in lieu of trials.
“Is that something that we need to go through and change our whole ordinance for?” Douglas asked.
“I think that’s something that will definitely be looked into as this proposal develops,” Carter said.
Douglas also said there are 2-acre minimum lot sizes required in the areas of Newton County that fall into watersheds for rivers. He said he would like to see those areas exempted.
“I have a lot of concern that even if we change the law; people who break the law probably never read the ordinance anyway. I’m not sure they’re going to suddenly start behaving because we change the ordinance,” Douglas said.
Other citizens had similar thoughts. McSwain said the issue seemed to be that people ignore or do not know the current laws. He suggested a public awareness campaign be a major effort, including explaining the recourses available for those whose properties are being illegally affected by gun firing.
McSwain said state laws and the current ordinance already address the majority of concerns.
“It’s just a matter of how do we enforce those and we’re going to need a lot of help from the public to do that,” he said.
Resident Pam McDermott said the issue is a crime issue primarily in one part of the county.
“If citizens were speeding on the streets in one district, they wouldn’t pass an ordinance making the speed limit 25 mph throughout the county; they’d go to the area where the speeding occurs and enforce the exiting speed limits. That’s common sense and that’s what we need here,” McDermott said.
Other residents did express concerns about safety and asked for reasonable laws to prevent tragedy.
Head, one of the spokesmen for the committee, said Wednesday another meeting had not yet been scheduled.
He said the committee will continue to discuss more specific ways to restrict recreational shooting, such as acre-lot size and population density; meetings with the county attorney’s office will be part of that process to determine what is legal and enforceable.
Head said the committee may decide in the end that there’s not a major issue and they may just propose tweaking the current ordinance and focusing on public awareness.
The significant amount of discussion to date has likely already aided in awareness efforts, he said.