In one of the longest and most chaotic debates of the Board of Supervisors’ term so far, Loudoun supervisors narrowly voted to gather information around strengthening the county’s gun safety standards.
After a long debate Tuesday, the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee will hear reports in February on: expanding the area of the county where shooting is prohibited, currently most of the suburban policy area to the east, to include the entire suburban policy area, which is largely covered by other shooting restrictions already; increasing the prohibited distance for firing guns from 50 yards to 100 yards from primary and secondary roads, which would match all other Virginia jurisdictions in the region; and study the possibility of requiring berms or shooting downhill for target shooting.
The county will also ask the state to consider a new law between the class one misdemeanor of reckless discharge of a firearm, which Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) described as “a slap on the wrist,” and the class one felony of maliciously firing at an occupied building, which Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said presents a heavy burden of proof to prosecutors.
Each of those passed 5-4, with supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), and Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) opposed.
After a different vote, county staff members will also make an interactive map of the areas where gunfire is prohibited publicly available and develop an outreach and education plan for firearm safety. Currently, the county code prohibits firing a gun within 100 yards “of a building with a current occupancy permit,” unless the owner gives permission, and in an area covering much of but not all of the county’s suburban area in the east.
The debate was prompted after five incidents in the past six months that saw eight homes struck by bullets. In June, supervisors commissioned a working group with a narrowly focused scope of work to examine the county’s gun laws. That group, which included representation from law enforcement, Office of the County Attorney, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and hunt clubs recommended only minor tweaks to the law, along with recommending education and outreach.
Some supervisors resisted even that, opposing a change to a law that restricts firing near buildings that hold occupancy permits. The group recommended a change to address the issue that many older buildings in Loudoun predate occupancy permits, or have older permits that are missing or not easily searchable.
“in the end, education and the education component of this motion and any motion that we do tonight is what’s key,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t really matter how many rules and laws we have, or if we adjust the line, if we don’t have education for safe firearm usage by those who are carrying firearms.”
Meyer, Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg), Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) and Randall pushed for more.
Letourneau said the problem is not the sheriff or Commonwealth’s Attorney—”This is a case of our code not being able to address what is now a problem.”
Of the incidents involving bullets striking homes and yielded no criminal convictions, and in most cases no charges, Letourneau said, that’s “not okay.”
“These are common sense things,” Letourneau said. “They’re not a threat. They’re not a threat to anything that anyone wants to do that’s a responsible owner, and I really wish the dialogue here was more about how to get at these issues here, rather than just throwing out the rhetoric.”
The debate devolved at times into personal attacks from supervisors on one side of it, and proceeded in stops and starts over the course of more than five hours.
“This is freaking—an utterly not-thought-through motion that has no business being in this discussion whatsoever,” Buona said of the proposed request to the state. “If you support this, you’re really showing you don’t understand firearms.”
“Look, if you guys want to impose a bunch of regulations, why don’t you man up and make the motions tonight,” said Higgins, who chairs the Transportation and Land Use Committee, which will continue studying the issue. “…If you got something you want to make, be a man.”
“Part of being a policymaker is coming up with policy ideas for consideration, and some of those aren’t necessarily ready to be implemented in primetime, but that’s why we have the committee structure,” Meyer said. “…You don’t have to question people’s manhood to say we need to have a sober conversation about policy ideas.”
The boardroom was packed with Loudouners on either side of the debate. Farmer James Cross said the problem is not guns—it’s lacking enforcement of the rules around them.
“It’s all irresponsible people that are doing this damage, and y’all need to get in front of it,” said James Cross. The sheriff’s department needs to get in front of it, and so does [Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim] Plowman. If he doesn’t prosecute, what good are you going to do about it?”
But Avran Fechter, who lives in Waterford near where bullets hit two houses, said the problem “is not a hypothetical issue for us.”
“My kids are not a solution in search of a problem,” Fechter said, adding, “Let’s face it, sooner or later we’re going to get unlucky. So far, the eight houses that have been hit this year, nobody’s actually been hurt. That’s a miracle. But sooner or later our number will be drawn, and someone will get hurt.”
Umstattd also suggested expanding the area where shooting is prohibited into parts of the transition policy area, but supervisors rejected that idea along party lines 3-6. None of the policies ideas sent to committee discussion would change the laws governing the most recent incident, when bullets from a private shooting range struck homes in Willowsford.
Loudoun County is constrained in what laws it can adopt on guns. The county is limited in the laws it can adopt without explicit authority granted by the Virginia General Assembly.