Chapel Hill News

Orange commissioners reject private property gun rules

One reason he bought his property off Orange Grove Road years ago, Neal Galloway said, was that he could build a gun range.

Now his neighbors shoot with him – just a couple of hours at a time and never on Sundays, he said – and they are teaching their children to be safe, responsible gun owners.

“I’m 61 years old, and I’ve been shooting for 55 years,” Galloway said. “It’s one of my passions, and in my retirement, I enjoy shooting along with the kids and teaching them responsible marksmanship and shooting safety. In order to do that, you have to have a place to do it, and that’s what we’ve been doing for many years now.”

It may not be a way of life that some people embrace, nearly three dozen Orange County residents said this week during a passionate and at times angry public hearing about proposed rules for using firearms on private property.

But it is normal for rural families, they said.

“The whole reason we’re having this (discussion) is because of a handful – a small, tiny minority of people – who abuse their shooting privileges in Orange County,” Galloway said, “and those are the ones who need to be addressed.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners rejected the proposed rules, instead approving a suggestion from Commissioner Barry Jacobs to create an Orange County Firearms Safety Committee. The committee could study the issue, he said, and include the sheriff, wildlife officials, the county manager, and gun proponents and critics.

Forming the committee will take some time, officials said. The commissioners must finalize membership details and the group’s goals, among other issues, and will send out a notice when applications are being accepted. The commissioners will make the final decision about members.

While Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough prohibit private firearms use within the town limits, the county doesn’t have any rules regulating the discharge of firearms on private property in unincorporated areas.

They’ve been talking about it for a couple of years, county officials said, with the goal of addressing personal vs. commercial recreational facilities, including gun ranges.

The commissioners approved new rules in January for commercial gun ranges; Buckhorn Rifle and Pistol Club off Mt. Willing Road may be the only one in Orange County. Those rules, in part, require commercial ranges to be 600 feet from all property lines and have a permanent backstop. The minimum acreage would be at least 33 acres, staff said.

Despite a September public hearing, a series of Planning Board meetings and the commissioners’ January meeting, many residents said they only learned about the new rules in the last week. Social media posts – including a plea from the Grass Roots North Carolina website – fed rumors the county would attempt to sneak new restrictions past gun owners.

Chairman Earl McKee addressed the issue head-on, calling out Grass Roots North Carolina in a Facebook post and responding to dozens of emails Tuesday. The board could have approved the rules in January if it didn’t want the public’s input, he said.

“This is a very awkward situation for us. This is a very aggravating situation for you all,” he said. “Commissioner (Mark) Dorosin and I knew when we put this on the agenda, this was going to light up, and it did. ... It’s a good thing that it did, because we got some very good comments.”

Rural traditions

Nearly three dozen residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, all but one saying the proposed rules threaten rural and family traditions, burden residents with excessive costs and restrict Second Amendment rights. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office would find enforcement a challenge, they said.

“I think they’re intrusive, onerous on the people, and it’s unreasonable to expect people to abide by those,” Josh Summey said.

The state legislature allows counties to regulate firearm use any time or place, except when hunting, protecting a person or property, or when directed by law enforcement.

The state’s only definition of a shooting range, established in a 1997 law, is “an area designed and operated for the use of rifles, shotguns, pistols, silhouettes, skeet, trap, black powder, or any other similar sport shooting.”

“The sport shooting range exemption wouldn’t apply to someone who went out in the woods or a field and slapped a target on a tree or post,” county attorney John Roberts said in an email.

The rejected rules would have restricted outdoor sport shooting on private land to twice a month from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Property owners would have been allowed to shoot more often if they built a 15- by 30-foot backstop and a shooting range at least 300 feet from property lines and 1,000 feet from neighbors’ homes.

A landowner would need more than eight acres to meet the 300-foot requirement, staff said. Several dozen acres, if neighboring houses are adjacent to the property lines, would be required to meet the 1,000-foot rule.

Blackwood called the required backstop “excessive” in a Feb. 1 email sent from his legal adviser. Requiring posted signs every 100 feet along property lines and wider plant buffers pose significant costs, he said. He also advised extending the hours from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Lenoir County’s ordinance offers a reasonable model, Blackwood said. He urged people to move past their anger and get involved.

“The point is there was a need for an ordinance, and an ordinance was drafted,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect, and I don’t know the mechanism that got it to where we are right now, but I think we’re at a point where we can come together and come up with a solution.”

Folks also shouldn’t assume the board only reflects an urban view, Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said.

“I think what people said in here about what is this for, that’s the primary starting point; what are we trying to accomplish,” she said. “Our goal is to protect the health and safety of all citizens, of all the residents of Orange County.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb