COVINGTON -- The committee that is reviewing proposed changes to the county's firearm discharge ordinance has abandoned a distance limitation increase from 100 to 350 yards, it was announced at a Tuesday night work session.
"That 350 yards is no longer on the table as far as the proposal," said Jenny Carter with the County Attorney's Office, who made a presentation regarding the committee's discussions so far.
In addition the committee, now called the Citizen Public Safety Working Group, is concerned that a proposed prohibition on shooting in all zoning districts besides agricultural, agricultural residential and rural estate might be "overly broad" and is looking at alternatives based on minimum acreage and population density. The group is also looking into adding an exemption for BB, air and pellet guns.
It is also considering keeping language in the current ordinance that allows a projectile to leave the property from which it was fired with written permission from the property owner.
The names of the nine-member group were revealed Tuesday night. They are:
Stan Edwards Jr.; Julius Hays; John Head; Ed Hutter; Maj. Morris Jones with the Newton County Sheriff's Office; Kevin Norman; Marcus Stowe; and Commissioners Levie Maddox and Lanier Sims. Ernie Smith with the GIS Department is assisting the committee in obtaining data and creation of maps.
Head said the group is emphasizing public safety and "the goal is going to be to find a safe way for handling firearms in our community."
Edwards said the committee is open to other members. Commissioner Nancy Schulz noted that 53 percent of the population on the western side of the county, where a majority of calls have been reported, is female, and recommended addition of females to the committee.
"I want everybody to know these people actively, aggressively sought to be on this committee because they cared not only about shooting but about the safety concerns of our constitutional officer here," he said.
Sheriff Ezell Brown initially proposed change to the firearm discharge ordinance due to increasing complaints from citizens. Commissioner J.C. Henderson asked the sheriff if he is comfortable with the committee's work.
"The committee, as it stands today, we're comfortable. I think we're headed in the right direction and I think this is just evidence of what we can do when we come together as a community, as a group and as concerned citizens of this county," Brown responded.
The committee wants 90 days to work before making a recommendation to the BOC. Ellis recommended that meetings be opened to the public.
Officials are stressing that hunters would be exempt regardless of what changes are made to the ordinance, and would only be subject to state law; nighttime hunting would be allowed and the distance requirements would not apply to hunters. A requirement that shooting be limited to one half hour before sunset and one half hour after sunset would apply to target shooting, not hunting.
Destruction of dangerous or nuisance animals, defense of person or property, existing sports shooting ranges, military and law enforcement personnel and discharge of blank cartridges would also be exempt.
Commissioner John Douglas wants to add the county's four watersheds to the exemption list; he said the 2-acre minimum lots on the east side are not where the problem exists.
Sims said that based on raw numbers, District 2 in west Newton has been the source of the most complaints regarding firearms discharge, followed by District 1 on the east side, then District 3 and District 5, with the least amount of calls coming from District 4.
"At the end of the day, we're trying to keep this county safe. We're not trying to infringe on anybody's rights, and at the same time, we have to think about the future and future subdivisions and what's going to happen in this county," Sims said.
He asked citizens to contact committee members with feedback and said the group is reaching out to organizations, civic groups and homeowners associations that might want to host small town hall meetings. Sims can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-883-7449. Maddox can be reached at 678-502-8929 or email@example.com.
Though the board normally doesn't allow public comments during work sessions, Ellis relaxed the rules Tuesday night and opened the final 10 minutes of the meeting to comments. With more speakers than time, the comments spilled over into the public comments portion of the regular meeting that followed. Jessica Wright, who has been an outspoken opponent of the proposed changes, said that since it can be dangerous for senior citizens to get into bathtubs, she's proposing a ban on all bathtubs unless they are inspected by the sheriff, as well as a prohibition on the use of power tools within 10 yards of any public assembly.
"These are some ideas we could implement to have some real public safety discussions," she said.
One citizen said his neighbor is using a semiautomatic and firing at his property while he is outside. He said the distance requirement needs to start at the property line, not at the structure.
Logan Bistok said his Labrador retriever was shot by a careless hunter and called for a strong ordinance to "help us stay safe."
"Nowhere does the Second Amendment give someone permission to discharge a firearm in a neighborhood," he said.
Pam McDermott responded that, "I had a dog killed by a car, but I'm not up here as a proponent of banning cars."
McDermott said she also had an uncle killed by a reckless hunter and a father who was nearly killed by a bullet from someone on a shooting spree.
"But I am not up here standing as a proponent of gun regulation, gun control and infringement on Second Amendment rights," she said.
McDermott said criminals are not paying attention to current laws and more restrictions will only burden the Sheriff's Office with more calls.
Larry McSwain suggested the committee get input from experts with the Department of Natural Resources, who have served on similar committees throughout the state. He also suggested a public awareness campaign.
"It's pretty clear a lot of folks ignore the existing ordinance; maybe it's due to just not knowing about it," he said. "Maybe some of the neighborhoods most impacted would benefit from knowing the laws and how to get relief."
He said state law and local ordinances already make it illegal to fire across property lines. "It's just a matter of how you enforce those and you're going to need a lot of help from the public to do that."