Police chief addresses effectiveness of new gun ordinance
By Richard L. Gaw
A gun ordinance may have been passed in Kennett Township in September that attempts to take the first steps needed in order to quiet the gunshots that reverberate around the community, but enforcing the laws to gun owners using their firearms for target practice is a prickly issue.
So said Kennett Township Police Chief Albert McCarthy, in an address to residents attending the township's board of supervisors meeting on Nov. 18.
In early September of this year, after many months of deliberation with its planning commission and township residents, the township's board of supervisors reached a compromise that allowed the township's ordinance restricting firearm usage to be passed. The ordinance, entitled, “Regulation of the Discharge of Firearms,” passed at a work session by supervisors Scudder Stevens and Robert Hammaker, went into effect on Sept. 8, and is intended “to secure the safety of persons and property within the Township and to maintain peace and order in the Township,” as stated in its purpose.
Under its restrictions, township residents who wish to use firearms for target practice on their property must limit the range of their shooting to beyond 150 yards of any occupied home or building, or more than 100 yards of a property line. Further, the ordinance places restrictions on the time of day shooters can take target practice; no discharge of firearms will be permitted in the township between “sunset” and 8 a.m. Any person in violation of the ordinance will be brought before a Magisterial District Justice under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, be found guilty of a summary offense, and receive a fine no less than $300 and no more than $1,000.
The seedlings of this ordinance were first planted at the township in June, when several township residents began to galvanize in response to hearing gun shots fired from properties throughout the township – full-throttle, high-powered rifle blasts fired for target shooting. At a Board of Supervisors meeting on June 26, more than two dozen residents packed the township building to call for a regulation on the use of firearms within township borders.
In subsequent supervisors meetings, a draft of the ordinance, culled from similar ordinances passed in other townships in the state, was discussed before residents, as well as reviewed by the township's planning commission, legal counsel, supervisors and residents, who offered written comments reviewed by township officials.
Responding to residents' continuing pressure on the township to enact these penalties in an effort to curb the sound of gunfire – which have resulted in about 15 complaints filed with the township since the law was passed – McCarthy called the law “flawed,” and said that it is up to the state government to change the law to suit more townships and counties in Pennsylvania. He also cited the rigidity of the rights given to gun owners that have been legislated by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
He said although he has received the complaints about the firing of guns for target practice, he has not yet filed any citations to those violating the ordinance. “The law is new, and to be fair, you first need to instruct them about the law,” said McCarthy, who told the audience that he has met personally with some of the township residents using firearms for target practice.
“They told me that they're not even aware that there even was any ordinance. They told me they are target masters who have been shooting for years, hitting fifty-cent pieces from 25 yards away, 'so what's the issue?'”
McCarthy said that he has met with the township's planning commission to discuss the status of the ordinance, who recommended that McCarthy enlist the counsel of the township's safety commission. Having done that, he said, the safety commission recommended that McCarthy work with an engineer in order to develop a safety “back stop” device that could potentially serve as a barrier between properties.
A township resident disputed McCarthy's claim that up to now, the ordinance is not enforceable.
“I'm confused about how quantitatively that this is not enforceable,” she said, referring to the fact that the ordinance clearly sets distances and parameters for target shooting. “Have you gotten a tape measure and measured?”
McCarthy answered that he has not. “We have not had a repeat shooter,” he said.
The resident then disputed McCarthy's claim, saying that there indeed have been repeated incidents of gunfire in the township. “We have repeatedly reported those instances,” the resident asked. “How can they be repeat shooters and have not been cited?
“Have you seen and are willing to testify that the property owner stood there and was shooting?” McCarthy asked the resident. “Have you seen you seen where he was standing?”
“I made a report,” the resident said. “I identified the shooter, Was I able to physically see see the shooter? No, because they were beyond the site of my property, and I wouldn't trespass on their property to go see them.”
“There's the problem,” McCarthy said. “Where do we have proof of where that individual shooting was from? It's got be beyond a reasonable doubt. You have to be able to tell us that you saw him, that you can identify him, and you know where he was standing on his property.”
The power to enforce regulations concerning the firing of forearms in municipalities like Kennett Township rests at the state level, McCarthy said.
“In the mean time, it's our family's safety that's on the line day to day, and we really can't wait until there's a decision on the state level,” the resident said. “We're looking for relief at our township level.”
McCarthy then related the enforcement of the gun ordinance to the efforts of small municipalities like Kennett Township to address increased traffic and accidents on busily-traveled roads, pinpointing the corner of Route 52 and Hillendale Road as an example.
“You have to wait until you have the accidents at the intersection to fix the problem, even though you can see it,” McCarty said. “You have to go back to the state and ask them to define why there is a broad sweep over second-class townships related to its gun ordinance.”
“This is about safety,” another resident said. “It's about bullets, less than it's about guns and shooting, and it's the bullets that cause the potential harm. When is there going to be some strong enforcement of the ordinances that protect the residents against flying bullets in residential neighborhoods?”
“We already have an ordinance that gives Albert (Chief McCarthy) and others the right to investigate and go further,” said board chairman Michael Elling. “It's not an easy job.”
Further discussion on the gun ordinance in Kennett Township is expected to be discussed at a board of supervisors' meeting in January.