:The areas shown in green represent the A, A-R, and R-E zoning districts where the discharge of firearms would still be permitted with limitations under a proposed amendment to the county's firearms discharge ordinance. The areas shown in white, except for the cities, are the zoning districts where the discharge of a firearm would not be permitted except for the exemptions of hunting, military or law enforcement, destruction of dangerous or nuisance wildlife, protection of person or property, discharge of blank cartridges and existing sport shooting ranges. Special Illustration
COVINGTON — An overwhelming majority of speakers were in opposition to proposed changes to the county ordinance regulating discharge of firearms at a public forum hosted by Newton County Farm Bureau at the Historic Courthouse Monday night.
Only one person in the packed boardroom spoke in support of the ordinance, while more than 20 spoke in opposition.
Keith Mitchum, president of Farm Bureau, said the organization is not taking a stance but facilitated the event in response to questions from members.
Sheriff Ezell Brown opened the forum by stating that the matter is not about gun control, but about public safety.
“I support the Constitution of the United States. I support the oath of office and I will adhere to the code of ethics of the office of sheriff. But it is also my responsibility to serve and protect not one citizen but every citizen here in Newton County,” he said.
Brown stressed that he has never stated that he wants to impede hunting rights, or the ability to protect person or property. Brown said the problem is not with hunters but with recreational and celebratory fire — people firing into the air — primarily in high-density areas.
But many residents still indicated they believe they will be prohibited from hunting and from protecting their property from wild animals if the ordinance is approved.
And they said the new distance requirement won’t do anything but punish law-abiding residents.
William Smith, who owns a 500-acre farm in east Newton, said, “At what point do we stop widening these zones of non-shooting? Our rights slowly get taken away little by little. It’s like boiling a frog. It doesn’t know it’s being boiled until it’s dead.”
Resident Todd Bowen stated, “I think we’re trying to overregulate law-abiding citizens. I don’t believe this ordinance is going to fix reckless behavior. Law-abiding citizens do not need to be told to be law-abiding citizens.”
The Georgia Wildlife Federation is opposed to the proposed ordinance amendments, said President and CEO Todd Holbrook, who spoke out at the meeting. In a follow-up interview on Tuesday, Holbrook said that sport shooting supports hunting by giving hunters the necessary practice to get comfortable discharging a firearm. Holbrook said high-powered weapons can shoot much farther than 350 yards, and the celebratory shooting the sheriff mentioned is already illegal.
“The distance around every structure is problematic and it does not appear to be necessary to support the mission of safety,” Holbrook said.
“You end up restricting a bunch of people that are doing things correctly. It becomes an unnecessary restriction,” he added.
One resident said he teaches his daughters to shoot so they can defend themselves and the ordinance would prohibit him from doing that on his property. Another said he owns a pawn shop and his top source of income is from used guns. He said he has to test the guns to make sure they work and he does that in his back yard; the new distance requirements would force him to find another location. The same would be true for the gunsmith who fixes the guns that don’t work, he said.
“One thing people are not seeing is the impact this is going to have on a small business. This will hurt my business, it will hurt our profit, it will hurt our profit margins. In this economy we can not afford it,” he said.
Some questioned why a local ordinance is needed given that the state sets regulations related to reckless conduct and sets a firing distance of 50 yards. Local law can be more restrictive than state law; it cannot be less restrictive.
Chairman Keith Ellis said a residents’ committee will discuss the issue and attempt to find middle ground and make a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners. The committee has not yet met and has not officially been appointed by the board, he said, adding that the committee was waiting to get feedback from residents before meeting. Commissioners Lanier Sims and Levie Maddox will serve on the committee and said they welcome public input.
Sims can be reached at email@example.com or 770-883-7449. Maddox can be reached at 678-502-8929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Commissioner Nancy Schulz also requested that her contact information be published, as she would like to hear from residents of District 3. Schulz can be reached at email@example.com or 770-337-7562.
Sims said he lives on a 100-acre farm where he allows hunters and learned to shoot as a youngster. He said he understands the opinions presented at the meeting and would also like to hear from residents in the high-density areas.
“It’s going to be a tough road. It’s not going to be a quick road. Working together we can get there. We can make it where the majority is happy with this ordinance,” he said.
The current ordinance was amended in 2006 to reduce the distance from 350 to 100 yards from which a firearm could be discharged from any residence, place of worship or public assembly or roadway. Brown is proposing to go back to the 350 yards. But he said Monday night that’s just a proposal and nothing has been finalized.
As proposed, discharge of firearms would be prohibited in most zoning districts: R1, R2 and R3 — single family residential; MSR — mixed use single family residential; DR — single and two family residential; RMF — multi-family residential; MHP — manufactured home park; MHS — manufactured home subdivision; OI — office institutional; CN — neighborhood commercial; CH — highway commercial; CG — general commercial; M1 — light industrial and M2 — heavy industrial.
Exemptions would apply for: law enforcement; anyone lawfully destroying dangerous animals for wildlife nuisance abatement; discharge of blank cartridges for theatrical or signal purposes, military exercises or funerals or memorial events; any resident lawfully defending person or property; and lawful use at a private or commercial sport shooting range.
An exemption for hunting regulated and conducted in accordance with state law has also been added; the current ordinance does not exempt hunting.
Discharge of firearms would be allowed in agricultural, agricultural residential and rural estate districts, if there is adequate protection in the form of a backstop and proper field of fire arranged to prevent danger to neighbors and nearby properties.
Prohibitions against firing at a person, at or from a dwelling, house, railroad, train, boat, aircraft, motor vehicle or building used for assembling people would remain.
Firearm discharge in the appropriate areas would be limited to between one half-hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset.
There were 714 complaints to the Sheriff’s Office in 2012 about discharge of firearms and 616 in 2011. Year to date there have been more than 80 complaints. Of those complaints this year, 44 calls involved reckless conduct, 16 calls involved property damage and 12 people were arrested. The bulk of complaints occur at night and are concentrated in the western portion of the county.
There have been two injuries and one death in the past five years, Brown said. The death occurred in 2007 when a stray bullet from a gun being used for target practice by two men came through the roof of a home and killed a 31-year-old mother of three as she sat at her computer.