SMITHFIELD — With Johnston County’s year-old shooting law powerless to stop what neighbors describe as near-constant gunfire, County commissioners say they’ll pursue legal action under the county’s noise and nuisance ordinances.
Since they first complained to the county board in March, residents of Oak Ridge subdivision – off N.C. 50 between Cleveland and McGee’s Crossroads — say James Whitlock III’s shooting habits haven’t changed. The neighbors have started counting shots, with 3,000 logged in the past 60 days and nearly 200 on a recent Monday alone.
“I’m here to ask, what are you going to do to help us with your situation?” said Steve Beals, who’s helped lead the neighborhood’s fight. “Did anybody come down to our neighborhood and listen to our problem? This problem is not going away until you help us.”
Commissioners promised in March to look for a solution. Sheriff Steve Bizzell sent deputies to Whitlock’s home on numerous occasions. But they found his shooting was legal under the county’s ordinance, which bans shooting after dark, under the influence or alcohol or “carelessly and heedlessly” with bullets crossing onto a neighbor’s property.
Several neighbors have said they’ve found evidence of gunfire on cars and on a backyard trampoline. But sheriff’s deputies say the evidence is not enough to issue a citation to Whitlock.
At their May 6 meeting, several commissioners suggested sending a letter to Whitlock asking him to stop. But Beals said that likely wouldn’t work, and he pointed to a letter Whitlock sent to a neighbor.
Whitlock’s letter demands the neighbor stop “your unacceptable behavior directed towards my life and me, including you immediately cease spreading false rumors about me and contacting law enforcement regarding me legally shooting on my property.
“Having law enforcement visit your home on an almost daily basis is far more intrusive than hearing occasional gunfire,” he continued, adding that he would sue the neighbors if they didn’t stop calling 911.
Beals said he’d like Johnston County commissioners to tweak their shooting ordinance to more closely resemble Wake County’s. Wake outlaws shooting within 100 yards of neighboring homes; Johnston’s ordinance originally included a 600-foot setback, but commissioners dropped the provision under fire from gun-rights activists.
But commissioners said they don’t want to go through another lengthy set of hearings to change the rules. “I wish that we could legislate common sense,” Commissioner Jeff Carver said. “We’re not going to be able to dissuade that guy, and we can’t take guns from everybody in the county.”
Carver said Whitlock might take the county to court, regardless of how it tries to stop him. Whitlock has represented himself as a plaintiff in several lawsuits. His wife, Alicia Jurney Whitlock, is a family-law attorney with the Smith Debnam firm in Raleigh.
County attorney David Mills said he can make a good case against Whitlock under the nuisance and noise rules. “I’m certain I can bring a legitimate claim, but it’ll be up to a judge and jury to decide,” Mills said. “I think it always sends a more powerful message if a governmental body takes action.”
Commissioners will take up the details of possible legal action at their June meeting. Neighbors said they don’t care how county leaders do it – they just want the shooting to stop.
“It destroys your peace of mind,” said Lola Delbridge, whose family farm backs up to the Whitlocks’ yard. “It’s extremely aggravating; it terrorizes the neighborhood.”