Loudoun County supervisors on Thursday roundly dismissed an attempt to expand a prohibition on shooting near occupied buildings, instead asking for a more narrowly focused safety study that will put the issue on the back burner until December.
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) proposed extending the required distance from an occupied structure for shooting a gun beyond the current 100-yard prohibition to 880 yards, or a half-mile—a distance allowed for in state code for prohibiting hunting in areas that are “so heavily populated as to make such hunting dangerous to the inhabitants thereof.”
Supervisors faced a standing-room-only crowd, including state Sen. Richard H. Black (R-13) and Del. Dave A. LaRock (R-33). LaRock said Umstattd’s proposal “reeks of a political agenda that seeks to chip away property rights.”
“I think it should be torn up, thrown in the trash and never revisited again,” LaRock said. “I think the initiator, the supervisor from Leesburg, owes everyone in this room an apology for ever bringing this forward.”
LaRock was not alone in his strong language, and the malcontent mood in the boardroom caused County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), after repeatedly admonishing people in the boardroom to maintain order, to recess a meeting because of outbursts from the audience.
The opponents to Umstattd’s proposal cut across a broad swath of Loudouners, including Department of Game and Inland Fisheries District Wildlife Biologist Kevin Rose, who told supervisors that restricting hunting would reduce the number of deer killed, which would mean more vehicle collisions.
While they weren’t as vocal, some people in the room offered the other side of the debate. They wore T-shirts from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and David Radford told supervisors about a neighbor who makes life difficult for his family within the current law, including, he said, firing toward his property to intimidate Radford’s daughter away from taking care of her horse and away from the back of the neighbor’s property.
“No one in this room can understand what it’s like until they’re in that position and their family is getting shot at,” Radford said. But even he did not support Umstattd’s proposal.
The number of speakers at the meeting forced the board to go beyond its newly installed time limits on public input at meetings, and left a waiting list besides.
The proposal was a reaction to an incident near Aldie in which three bullets from a private shooting range struck homes in Willowsford about 300 yards away. Sheriff’s deputies investigating that incident found that although the shooters were firing fully automatic weapons, they were properly licensed and acting legally.
At two of those houses, people were home, one family outside, one person laying on the couch holding his baby when a bullet struck nearby.
Some supervisors were also sharply critical of the Sheriff’s Office and Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman for deciding not to bring charges in the incident that launched the controversy, particularly for not charging the shooters with reckless discharge of a firearm.
“I don’t care how many laws that we put on the books, if we don’t enforce the ones that we have, they’re all useless,” said Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin).
Plowman said among the hundreds and hundreds of rounds fired that day, it was impossible to establish who had fired the three that flew into Willowsford, and to bring charges he would need an individual to prosecute. And he said although the bullets left the property, the shooters’ actions may not have met the legal standard for recklessness.
He also said he was concerned by Buffington’s suggestion that someone be charged to make an example.
“We can’t just charge someone to make an example,” Plowman said. “If you don’t have the evidence or probable cause to charge someone, to bring a case, and charging them with a crime—I take that responsibility very seriously, putting someone at risk of their liberty.”
Umstattd’s proposal found no support among other supervisors, even among those who agreed Loudoun’s gun regulations need another look.
“This is a situation that requires legislative by scalpel, and this proposal is a sledgehammer,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
Instead, a majority of supervisors got behind a compromise worked out between supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) to launch a safety study. The debate led supervisors to examine local gun regulations more broadly, including discovering that a blanket prohibition on discharging firearms except for some hunting in the more densely built areas of the county has not kept up with the county’s growth. The safety study will be strictly limited to discussions of prohibiting discharging firearms toward buildings with occupancy permits, prohibiting bullets flying over another person’s property without their permission, and re-examining the part of that prohibition on discharging firearms. It also directs county staff members to work with various law enforcement, legal, and firearms professionals.
“This gives direction to staff to work with a group of professionals in the firearm industry, and it sends them off with a focused direction rather than carte blanche,” Buffington said. “…it directs them to only look at these two issues and look at all the possibly unintended consequences.”
That passed 6-3, with supervisors Higgins, Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), and Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) opposed.
“You’re reacting to one incident, and sometimes you just have to have a little backbone and understand we have an accident here, and we don’t need to be reacting with all these crazy changes that everyone’s proposing up here playing amateur lawyer,” Buona said.
The results of that study will come back to the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 4.
“I think we understand what you all are saying the law is, but my common sense is, if guns are shooting into houses, then there’s probably a problem and something should be done,” Randall said. “…It just seems to me that if nothing went wrong, but somebody could have been killed, then something needs to be done.”