Supervisors will send a new local gun law to a public hearing in December, but there’s no guarantee the ordinance won’t change again before a vote.
After a year and a half of debate, on Dec. 11 the county board will hold a public hearing on a new local law that reads: “the discharge of firearms for recreational or target shooting purposes shall be conducted in such a manner as to ensure that projectiles do not leave the boundaries of the property or parcel upon which the shooting is occurring, unless permission to do so has been granted by the adjacent landowner. A projectile leaving the boundaries of the property or parcel shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this section.”
“Prima facie” is a legal term meaning, in this case, that a bullet leaving the property will mean the law is presumed to have been broken unless proven otherwise.
County staff members will also consult with Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittman about what would make an enforceable ordinance—after the former Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman and Sheriff Michael L. Chapman argued they could not effectively bring charges under existing law in previous incidents—and ask Wittmann to attend the public hearing.
On Thursday evening, supervisors debated whether to also include language requiring a containment method—such as a berm—to prevent bullets leaving properties where target shooting occurs.
“There is no such thing, in my opinion… as a ‘containment method,’” said Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “I don’t even know what the heck that means. You can’t build a containment method big enough. If I shoot a high-powered rifled in the air, that round is going to travel a long ways. And I can do that, because anybody can be irresponsible. We can’t fix stupid.”
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) led those pushing to require some way to contain gunfire.
“The reason why I added this prima facie language is what that means is that once bullet leaves a property, it is evidence that there wasn’t an adequate method to contain that bullet,” Meyer said. “… The definition of ‘adequate’ is that it keeps bullets on the property.” He argued the rules would allow prosecutors to charge everyone at a private shooting range with violating the new ordinance if any bullet left the property. Plowman and Chapman have argued they cannot prosecute under existing law unless they can prove which individual was responsible.
Other supervisors just pushed to finally take a concrete step after more than a year of back-and-forth in which the board also decided not to expand the areas where shooting is not allowed to include some of Loudoun’s newly developed areas.
“We didn’t want to adjust the boundary lines. We can’t identify who did the shooting, so what is left?” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “This is what is left.”
“We’ve deferred it and deferred it and deferred it,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “We should have done something last year, we should have done something earlier this year, and once again we’re not taking any action, we’re just deferring. …Quite frankly, I’m tired of deferring this while people get their homes shot up.”
Supervisors also offered different versions of individual text conversations with Wittman during Thursday’s meeting about which would be more enforceable. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) expressed frustration with supervisors offering different legislation on the fly.
“I’m confused as heck right now, and I’m extremely frustrated,” Letourneau said. “Did anybody ask the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office before today what the best language would be? And if not, why not?”
On Monday morning, Wittmann declined to comment.
“I’m not going to have that conversation with you, with all due respect,” Wittmann said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. Those conversations were between us.”
She suggested it’s “more appropriate for the county attorney to be involved at this point than the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office,” adding “maybe that’s a question better suited for Buta Biberaj.” Biberaj on Tuesday defeated Wittmann in the commonwealth’s attorney’s race and will take over the office Jan. 1. Wittmann hung up before the reporter could explain the public hearing is scheduled while Wittmann will still be in the office. Loudoun Now has filed a FOIA request to review the text message exchanges, which are public record.