The Loudoun Board of Supervisors has advanced a proposal aimed at curbing incidents where stray gunfire strikes homes or lands in adjacent properties.
The measure, discussed Nov. 7, follows several cases in which stray bullets have reportedly crossed property lines and, in some cases, struck people. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 11.
Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony Buffington (R) last week made the substitute motion, shadowing an initial proposal to include berming or backstops from Broad Run Supervisor Ron Meyer (R). Buffington’s motion that “provides the discharge of firearms for recreational or target shooting purposes shall be conducted in such a manner as to ensure projectiles do not leave the boundaries of the property or parcel upon which the shooting is occurring unless permission” has been given by the adjacent property owner passed 6-3. Meyer, Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) and Sterling Supervisor Koran Saines (D) opposed the measure. (See both motions below.)
Buffington said requiring a berm is not an answer and “does not work.” Requiring any form of berming would be a problem if challenged in court, Buffington said.
County staff has researched the idea of requiring target shooters to use berms, backstops or natural features to capture bullets from the discharge of their firearms.
Staff recommended that new language contain projectile discharge to the limits of the property of which the discharge occurred.
“... Let’s remove that whole part and just say if you’re bullet ends up outside of your property, [and] you don’t have permission from the adjacent property owner then you’ve violated the law,” Buffington said. “I don’t think any responsible gun owner would have a problem with us doing that, and there’s no issue with that from legal [counsel].”
Meyer said his motion would help prosecutors dealing with stray gunfire.
“We need that method of containment so these things can be prosecuted,” Meyer said. “The prosecutors have not been able to prove the individual who shot the gun, and that’s not what we should be trying to prove. What we should be trying to prove is that there was a group or individuals shooting without a proper method of containment, and all those people – once a bullet leaves the property – could be in violation of this ordinance. That's the whole point … to give the prosecutors more tools so they can stop people who are bad actors.”
Meyer’s colleagues disagreed with his calls for berms and backstops. Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) called it subjective.
“We are trying to create something that is so subjective, so unenforceable and so non-prosecutable that we’ve got to quit doing that. We have to pass something that is clean with the commonwealth’s attorney,” Buona said. “We all want to solve the problem, we know there is a problem, we all want to solve the problem, but we have to do it with some commonsense and knowledge of firearms ...”
Buffington added that his motion that excludes “a method of containment” supports the board’s goal.
“This accomplishes the goal, and the goal is to keep bullets which are discharged on private property on that same property. Those bullets should not leave your property unless you have permission from the adjacent landowner where they are being fired into," Buffington said.
On a few occasions during the meeting, board members referred to their communications with interim Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Wittmann about her feedback on the proposals.
Dulles Supervisor Matthew Letourneau (R) said he was frustrated no one has consulted with commonwealth’s attorney over the past several months until shortly before the meeting.
The board’s motion calls for Wittmann to attend the December public hearing and be consulted on the amendment considerations.
Randall said a lproblem for investigators is that in such cases shooters have been using the same gun.
“...if we say that is a prima facie evidence of the bullets leaving the property ending up in somebody else’s living room, but we can’t identify who did the shooting anyway so that no one gets charged with anything that’s quite the big loophole that we could just drive a car through for that issue,” Randall said.
Under the weapons and explosives section of the county ordinance, the discharge of a firearm within 100 yards of an occupied building is prohibited unless the owner has been given permission. Discharge is also prohibited within 50 yards of primary and secondary roads.
A September incident of stray gunfire led to a woman being struck in Hamilton. Since 2018, at least eight homes in Loudoun County have been struck by errant gunfire.
A report from county staff and the sheriff’s office showed that there have been 20 instances in which stray bullets have crossed property lines dating back to Nov. 30, 2016.
"Quite frankly I’m tired of defferring this while people get their homes shot up or the last time a lady gets hit in the arm,” Leesburg Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D) said. “I just want to do something that will prevent these reckless shooters from shooting up their neighbor’s property or shooting up their neighbors."
Supervisor Ron Meyer's motion:
“ … that the Board of Supervisors approve an amendment change to Chapter 684.03 of the Codified Ordinances of Loudoun County Discharge of Firearms which provides no person shall discharge a firearm for recreational or target shooing purposes without methods to contain the projectile within the boundaries of property or parcel as defined in this chapter upon which the discharge occurs unless permission to do so has been granted by the adjacent landowner, a projectile leaving the boundaries of the property or parcel shall be prima facie evidence violation of this section. Direct staff to prepare and advertisement for the Dec. 11 public hearing.”
Supervisor Tony Buffington's substitute motion:
“ … that the Board of Supervisors approve an amendment change to Chapter 684.03 of the Codified Ordinances of Loudoun County Discharge of Firearms which provides the discharge of firearms for recreational or target shooting purposes shall be conducted in such a manner as to ensure projectiles do not leave the boundaries of the property or parcel upon which the shooting is occurring unless permission to do so has been granted by the adjacent landowner, a projectile leaving the boundaries of the property or parcel shall be prima facie evidence violation of this section. Direct staff to prepare and advertisement for the Dec. 11 public hearing. Before the public hearing, direct staff to consult with the commonwealth's attorney as to the prosecutability of any proposed ordinances as well as request, as well as request, the attorney to attend the board’s public hearing on Dec. 11.”
Stray gunfire has become an increasing concern in Loudoun County. Here's a rundown of the issue over the past 18 months:
-May 6, 2018: Three homes in Loudoun hit by stray bullets from a machine gun traveling a third of a mile. No charges were brought forth because law enforcement could not determine which of the four people fired the firearm.
-June 21, 2018: Proposal to change the county's weapons and explosives ordinance turned down. A working group is formed to study the safety concerns identified by the board.
-Dec. 4, 2018: Board of Supervisors opts against ordinance change, passes on working group report, sends matter to Land Use and Transportation Committee for review. At least eight incidents of stray gunfire striking a building reported since May.
-Feb. 25: Land use committee considers requiring target shooters to use backstops to capture gun discharges. Committee recommended the board update Section 684.03(d) of the county’s codified ordinance to include the 100-yard discharge ban for all occupied structures. Item stalled.
-April 29: Times-Mirror learns via email from county staff that the firearm safety is expected to be on the land use committee agenda in May.
-May 28: Item not included on agenda for land use committee.
-Sept. 8: A woman reports being struck by an errant bullet in the 39600 block of Gable Farm Lane between Leesburg and Hamilton. Woman treated for minor injuries. Sheriff's office says a charge is pending.
-Sept. 24: Land use committee forwards firearms ordinance amendment to full board; measure would require some form of backstop for private shooting
-Nov. 7: Board of Supervisors directs staff to advertise for ordinance change to include ‘bullet trespass’ language.