A wary selectboard on Monday delayed a vote on whether to adopt its new shooting ordinance, suggesting that it may ditch regulations on backyard shooting ranges until it can seek more public feedback.
Monday’s hearing was slated to be the final step in a lengthy ordinance revision process, and the board entered the evening prepared to vote on changes reflective of discussions over the last two years: placing limits on hunting in several town parks and requiring residents to register their backyard ranges.
But the board blinked, tabling the ordinance over several outstanding questions and raising the possibility of removing shooting ranges from the proposal entirely, based on concerns that a proposed notification form does little toward the overall goal of safety.
The move capitulated to the appeals of a majority pro-shooting crowd and frustrated some supporters of stronger regulations. It also added at least another month to the ordinance process.
The board now plans to schedule a special meeting in the coming weeks, where it will finalize language for a Sep. 23 public hearing at which officials hope to vote on the ordinance.
Some on the board found the postponement hard to stomach.
“I admit this is not perfect. Come September, it won’t be perfect then. It won’t be perfect a year from now. It’s a baby step, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said vice chairman Max Levy. “Waiting, to me, is a delay tactic that I don’t think is warranted.”
Chairwoman Elaine Haney shared Levy’s frustrations, saying the board needs to “stop waiting” and act, though “out of respect” to questions from other board members, she supported pushing back a vote until September. But not a moment longer.
“We will get as much information as we possibly can, and at that time, this board needs to do what we need to do,” Haney said.
As written, the ordinance prohibits shooting at the Essex Tree Farm and allows it at two town parks – Indian Brook and Saxon Hill – during a 45-day window covering deer hunting season: November 1 to December 15.
Among several outstanding questions are how the ordinance would be enforced, whether the board should consider extending the shooting window to match upcoming hunting season changes and whether the rules clearly outlaw target shooting on public property.
The answers are unlikely to bring major changes. Officials agreed upon the rules last year and view them as a compromise, prohibiting shooting in town parks during popular summer months while still allowing hunters to use the land for their preferred recreational outlet. And even as hunters continue to push for an extended window, many seem to believe the board has at least tried to find a common ground.
Shooting ranges are another story.
Under the proposed ordinance, anyone who operates a backyard range – defined as open property on which people may discharge a firearm for purposes other than hunting – would need to register with the town before January 1, 2020.
The registry was born out of a proposal from Levy to create a permitting system. The idea was eventually dismissed over concerns that it would put the municipality at risk of being liable if a stray bullet left a permitted property and injured someone.
The goal of Levy’s proposal was to get a better idea where ranges are located, and the proposed ordinance would aid that effort by making homeowners submit a notification form listing their name, address, date their range was established, intended use of their range and a site plan.
But the document goes beyond information gathering, instead creating a to-do list that would make backyard ranges more expensive. That’s because in registering with the town, homeowners would need to certify their ranges meet standards in the National Rifle Association Range Source Book, share proof of $500,000 of liability insurance and confirm they will “defend, indemnify and hold harmless” the town over any liability claims.
Opponents of the ordinance changes have argued the form is a gross overstep of the municipality’s authority and an invasion of privacy that creates a one-stop-shop for people who want to discriminate against gun owners.
“You guys are painting a red scarlet letter on my back as a target shooter,” said Kendall Chamberlain. Others say the form’s requirements are cost-prohibitive, since the NRA manual is geared toward large-scale commercial ranges, not backyard ranges.
Leery of pricing out low-income homeowners, selectboard officials have voiced similar concerns about the liability requirement, prompting staff to investigate how much a $500,000 liability policy costs an average homeowner.
The answer varied across providers; prices ranging between $15 and $100 a year for homeowners with existing insurance policies, according to staff memos.
But some commenters noted the cost would be more for people who don’t have existing policies, like those who own open land or have paid off their mortgages. And some of the same insurance providers informed the town last month that they wouldn’t provide liability insurance to someone who operates a shooting range on their land.
The selectboard initially shied away from shooting ranges when it began the ordinance process, recognizing the opaque laws surrounding the practice and potential powder keg that comes with trying to legislate over private property.
But after some residents argued backyard ranges pose a greater noise nuisance and safety threat than hunting, the selectboard decided late last summer to lump the topic into the current process, hoping to pass through any changes in one swoop.
That meant twice the work upfront, but the board seemed posed to finish it off heading into Monday night.
Two hours later it had unraveled, starting with an unlikely source: Levy, the vice chairman, who proposed that the board think about nixing the form and returning to the drawing board. “I’d like to give [the shooting range discussion] the respect it deserves.”
Levy guessed his take was surprising but pointed to criticisms that the form doesn’t further the goal of safety and said, “I don’t want to just do something. I want to do something right.”
He proposed a listening tour through which the board would “tap into the knowledge resource” of local shooters and “come up with an encyclopedia of ideas” on how to make sport shooting safer in town.
Selectman Patrick Murray responded that Levy’s idea runs into the same liability concerns as before. “We cannot go out there and say, ‘This looks good,’” Murray said, later adding, “What we’re trying to do is come up with a middle ground, a compromise.” Some in the crowd took issue with Murray’s comments.
“See you in court,” yelled one crowd member.
“In a lot of cases, yeah, that’s what happens,” Murray said.
“That’s what will happen,” the person responded.
Few topics have encouraged the level of public discourse witnessed during the two-year ordinance process. Opponents of the changes have maintained a vocal majority, accusing the town of infringing upon their constitutional rights and punishing all shooters for the failures of a few. Voices supporting regulation, meanwhile, have steadily grown, and Monday night was no exception. Numerous residents called on the board to stand firm and protect the public.
“Even if you’re taking baby steps toward this goal, take them. Do something. It has been too long,” said resident and former selectmen Bruce Post, who said it’s been 11 years since a stray bullet killed former St. Michael’s College professor John Reiss in his Essex home.
“We’re past the point of saying I’m sorry that happened,” said resident Mark Redmond.
In the end, the board tabled the form and asked town staff to explore ways for more public outreach, suggesting the ordinance changes seen in September will focus mainly on shooting in town parks.
“Please keep in mind the significant shift we just took at your behest,” Haney said after the discussion, speaking to the mainly pro-shooting crowd that remained at the meeting. “We have been listening the whole time, and most of the time, it’s you guys that have been in the audience and not people who are in favor of what we’re trying to do.”
Haney said officials could have acted on the recommendations of three different local police chiefs to make the entire town a no discharge zone. Instead, they are trying to walk a line between the two extremes, she said.
“The personal remarks and the threats of lawsuits are just not necessary,” she said. “We’re doing our best.” The comments drew a brief applause.
Editor’s note: Due to a production error, the print version of this story omitted several paragraphs. And due to a reporting error, a quote from Mark Redmond was misattributed to another speaker in the print version. We regret the errors.