A citizens committee put a new gun-firing ordinance on the table this past week, and while it eliminates many issues residents had with the original proposal from earlier this year, some locals wonder if it will actually cut down on illegal firing.
The committee’s proposed draft ordinance would outlaw recreational shooting, namely private target practice, on properties smaller than 2 acres, within 100 yards of a residence, public building or road, and at night. Hunting would be exempted from any local restrictions and would only be subject to existing state regulations.
The draft ordinance is scheduled to be on the Newton County Board of Commissioners’ May 21 agenda, Chairman Keith Ellis said, with a work session on the draft scheduled for 6 p.m., an hour before the official 7 p.m. meeting.
The draft was created by a group of active citizens, county commissioners Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox, and Maj. Morris Jones with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office. They sought to find a middle ground between public safety concerns and the rights of responsible gun owners.
Spurred on by growing 911 calls related to the firing of guns — a total of 1,330 in 2011 and 2012 — Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown earlier this year proposed restricting where guns could be fired recreationally.
His proposal also called for an exemption for hunting, but many people initially misunderstood that the exemption was a complete exemption.
In addition, the sheriff’s proposal called for recreational shooting to be outlawed in every zoning area besides agricultural, agricultural residential and rural estate, a restriction many felt was much too broad.
The committee did away with zoning-based limits and used a minimum 2-acre lot size restriction instead, as well as keeping the current 100-yard restriction and even relaxing that restriction when it comes to a person’s own property.
“We understood and respected the fact that our sheriff had a safety concern… In this case, the sheriff identified a problem and proposed a solution or at least a starting point,” said citizen committee spokesman Stan Edwards Jr. “The citizenry gave input and came up with a solution of their own. It remains to be seen whether or not the sheriff signs off on the proposal and if the Board of Commissioners adopts it. But I know Newton County has citizens who care enough to participate in ‘the process’ of enabling collaboration and, in turn, productivity. This committee was proof of that.”
Sheriff Brown declined Friday to weigh in on the draft proposal and Maj. Jones could not be reached for comment.
Reaction from county commissioners was mixed, with Maddox and Ellis both saying they felt the draft reached a good middle ground, while previously outspoken Commissioner John Douglas continued to express concern that a revised ordinance is unneeded and won’t reduce crime or 911 calls.
“Every citizen who respectfully voiced their opinion was heard by someone on the citizens committee,” said Maddox. “It captures a tougher stance on crime, especially in high-density areas, while also providing greater gun rights and protections for law-abiding citizens. We also really appreciate the citizens on the committee for an open-minded review on this topic.”
While Douglas said the draft was a “good-faith effort,” he said it seems to duplicate a lot of state law and doesn’t do enough to protect Second Amendment rights. He said he’s considering hosting a town hall meeting before the May 21 board meeting.
“The one overriding, still unanswered question I have is, ‘How will this ordinance be any more enforceable or better enforced than the current ordinance?’” Douglas said Friday.
He said he was still seeking legal opinion on the new penalty portions of the draft, which states that a first-time convicted offender would face a fine of $500 to $1,000 and 30 to 120 days of jail time.
Anyone convicted multiple times would face a fine of $1,000 and 90 to 120 days of jail time for each conviction.
Resident 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, applauded the process and felt the ordinance took many positive steps, but added that a few questions remain.
He wondered if the 2-acre requirement would adversely affect some landowners in rural areas where there would be no safety issue.
He also questioned whether a person should need written permission to shoot on another person’s property, saying state regulations only say general permission is needed unless a landowner has a posted sign specifying written permission.
He thanked Chairman Ellis and the board for slowing down the process to allow for so much public input.
Another change in the ordinance is to specifically define the types of guns that will be subject to restrictions, which includes handguns, rifles, shotguns or other weapons that expel projectiles with explosive or electrical charges.
BB guns, air guns, pellet rifles and other air or gas-powered guns would be exempt from this ordinance, a move Douglas applauded.
The destruction of dangerous animals and nuisance wildlife will also be exempted and subject only to state law.
In a follow-up email, Edwards answered some questions about the rationale behind some of the changes.
He said the change that allows people to shoot within 100 yards of their own residence was made to allow experienced gun users more freedom on their own property, because they can use their own common sense to know what is safe or not on their property.
As for the 2-acre minimum, “the committee came up with this acreage as a way to deal with the more populated and problem areas (shooting problems) while attempting to be as restrictive-neutral as possible on the rural parts of the county,” Edwards said.
Another provision eliminated from the sheriff’s initial proposal was the one requiring recreational shooters to have a sheriff’s office-approved backstop.
“To be honest, the committee feels that having a deputy come out to a citizen’s property to approve a backstop is overly restrictive at this time given the rural nature of parts of the county and the suggested 2-acre minimum for shooting in the whole county,” Edwards said.