By Richard L. Gaw
For the last month, throughout the Fairfield Road vicinity of Kennett Township, the sound of gunfire has been heard as many as three times a day - full-throttle, high-powered rifle blasts from practice rounds.
The shots have been coming from the eight-acre property at 102 Center Mill Road, and homeowner Dr. Morris Peterzell, 52, a physician specializing in osteopathic manipulative medicine, has been approached by members of the State Police and Kennett Township Police Chief Albert McCarthy.
To date, no actions have been taken against Peterzell, and for good reason: Under the Uniform Firearms Act, 18 Pa. C.S.A. Section 6106(b)(4), individuals are permitted to target shoot on private property and are not required to hold a license in order to shoot. Despite the fact that Peterzell's target practice is preempted and protected by state law, nearly 30 Kennett Township residents packed the township building on June 26 to publicly air their grievances before the township's Board of Supervisors.
On June 25, an e-mail letter was sent to 31 township residents, asking them to attend the supervisors meeting to show strength in numbers, as well as ask the township to consider enacting an ordinance that regulates the use of firearms in a township setting.
"This is a much bigger issue than any three or four families can tackle," the letter read. "We need to show the supervisors that there are many concerned citizens, and that many voters wish to have them consider an ordinance prohibiting weapons discharges, except under certain conditions."
The public may have had their initial say on June 26, but the township has been attempting to address the issue - as well as looking at how other municipalities are handling similar issues - since early June. In an e-mail to supervisors Michael Elling, Robert Hammaker and Scudder Stevens on June 12, township manager Lisa Moore informed the supervisors that a township resident had approached her about putting the issue on the board's meeting agenda, and that she had approached township solicitor Bob Adams to explore how the township may be able to enact regulations prohibiting the firing of guns on private property.
On June 12, Adams responded to Moore, writing that although state law protects Peterzell, "if the shooting is done in an unsafe manner, I believe the police have sufficient power under state law to arrest someone," Adams wrote.
In a subsequent paragraph, Adams pointed out that the township's nuisance ordinance (Section 168-4), does define the noise regulations for nuisance, which states that the noise shall not be heard beyond the boundaries of the property in a manner that exceeds to the performance standards of the zoning ordinance performance standards (Section 240-2014A).
"Given the fact that the state law exempts the shooting of guns from nuisance standards, and it is virtually impossible to keep the sound of weapons firing from crossing a property boundary, I am quite certain that these performance standards would not be of use in an enforcement effort as long as the shooting activity is 'normal and accepted.'" Adams wrote.
The township, however, is studying ordinances enacted by other townships and municipalities that help curb target shooting with firearms. On June 27, Moore wrote an e-mail to the supervisors, saying that she had spoken to a representative from the Fallowfield Township in Washington County, Pa. The township's Ordinance No. 206 states that no firearm discharge is permitted within 150 yards of any occupied dwelling house, residence, or other building or camp occupied by human beings, or any barn, stable, or other building used in connection to a playground, school, nursery school or day care center. Further, the ordinance prohibits firearm discharge within 100 yards of a property line; and that no shell, bullet or projectile may cross a property line; that target shooting be done with an adequate backstop; and that shooting is not permitted to take place between 7:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.
"We really want to see how other municipalities are handling this issue," Moore said. "Our concern was that we wouldn't be able to do anything, at the same time knowing that these townships are able to do something."
During her research, Moore also came across Ordinance No. 712, enacted by the Exeter Township in Berks County, Pa., which states that it is unlawful within the township for any person to discharge a firearm, unless they are a constable, sheriff, prison or jail warden, or deputies or policemen of the Commonwealth. Under the guidelines, exceptions are also reserved for hunting, or the use of a firearm at a gun club or any private outdoor target, trap, skeet or shooting range that is properly constructed and complies with both NRA standards for range safety and applicable zoning regulations.
Moore said these ordinances are being reviewed by Adams, and that the township cannot formally draft and subsequently enact any ordinance until it is approved by Adams.
The township is not just limiting its efforts to piggy-backing on how other Pennsylvania townships are legislating firearm usage. They're gathering citizens together.
Township Police Chief Albert McCarthy, who has met personally with Peterzell and called the meetings "very cooperative," said that he is in the process of arranging a meeting between Peterzell and concerned residents. McCarthy said that if the meeting draws positive dialogue aimed toward a compromise, the matter could be settled through a handshake agreement.
"It would be nice to get the residents to agree upon something," he said. "There are other residents in the township who shoot target practice on their properties, but they do it at certain times of the week, completely in cooperation with their neighbors' wishes."