Surveying a long row of plants one recent afternoon, Sarah Salatino commented on what had turned out to be quite a beautiful day, one to suggest summer could stave off the inevitable chill a few more weeks.
Salatino runs a perennial nursery off Brigham Hill Road and enjoys days like this, where the only sounds are the breeze and the crunch of gravel from an arriving customer.
The quiet scene was interrupted moments later by a dog, not seen but heard somewhere near Salatino’s home. She first apologized. Then she recognized the irony of her situation.
“Right now, if my neighbors were upset, they could call the police, and I could be fined for this barking dog,” she said. “She’s barking at 60 decibels. Guns are 120 or more. But there’s no ordinance for them. You can just complain.”
She’s right. Residents in areas of town where shooting is permitted have no legal recourse when it comes to gunfire. Police sometimes talk to the shooter to ensure they’re taking precautions – though none are specifically mandated – and if there’s no obvious risk to the public, complainants are often told that authorities’ hands are tied.
That could soon change if the selectboard decides to regulate backyard shooting ranges, a topic the officials agreed to tackle after frequent urgings from Salatino and others who say the danger and noise posed by backyard shooting dwarfs that of hunting.
Opponents of any new restrictions, meanwhile, remain adamant the clear majority of backyard ranges are safe.
The selectboard will wade through the debate next month. Members have long remained unsure what – if any – control they have over these backyard ranges, struggling to grasp the legal complexities because laws governing the issue are up for interpretation. The intricacies aren’t clear to Salatino, either, but to her, the issue is simply about civility and safety.
“It’s not the land that it used to be 20 years ago when we moved in, when a lot of these folks decided to buy 40 acres up here and be able to shoot and hunt,” she said. “It’s getting frighteningly dangerous. It’s only a matter of time before something tragic happens. I just wish there could be a way that would work for everybody.
“I wish,” she said again, trailing off.
Misinformation about the town’s authority to regulate shooting has persisted throughout the ordinance revision process. A frequent claim is that while municipalities can prohibit the discharge of firearms within their boundaries, those rules don’t apply to existing shooting ranges.
That’s not exactly true.
Sport shooting ranges are exempt only if they existed before May 2006 and have maintained the same historic level of noise and use since then, according to a Vermont Supreme Court ruling last year. And whether backyard ranges even fall under that category depends on who you ask.
State law defines sport shooting ranges as “designed and operated” for archery, rifles, pistols, skeet, black powder or any other similar sport shooting. The law makes no clear distinction between a range open to the public and one on private property, and it’s equally silent on the definitions of “designed” and “operated.”
So if a resident uses a portion of their land solely for shooting, does that mean they have a legitimate sport shooting range? Yes, according to Evan Hughes, vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen Club.
Hughes is a lobbyist who worked on 2006 legislation that greatly limited municipalities’ authority over shooting ranges (the legislation was at the heart of last year’s Supreme Court ruling.)
He believes backyard shooters who have regularly shot since 2006 have legal standing, and “the town would really run into problems trying to regulate” these ranges.
Not everyone is convinced. Brian Murphy, an attorney and Essex resident who lives near a backyard range, believes they fail to meet the “designed and operated” standard. Lumping backyard ranges into those protected by the law is disingenuous to the legislature’s intent, he said.
“If I put a pie plate up in my backyard,” he said, “I don’t think that’s what the statute is talking about.”
Legal counsel has advised the selectboard it can pass zoning or an ordinance to ban sport shooting in town. But the law’s lacking clarity could prove important if the selectboard attempts to enforce such a ban.
Among the first questions will be if the range has existed since 2006, and proving it hasn’t may take some legwork since there’s no federal, state or local entity that oversees these backyard ranges, and residents don’t need a permit to use them. Neither the town, nor Vt. Fish & Wildlife, nor anyone for that matter, knows exactly how many ranges there are now.
Murphy believes most are concentrated within the Brigham Hill Road area; Salatino can rattle off up to seven she knows, though she expects there are more.
The only way to even guess is to look at how many people in town own hunting licenses, a flawed assessment for obvious reasons: Not every hunter shoots in their backyard; not every backyard shooter hunts.
Still, if a new ordinance ever lead to a legal battle, someone would need to verify how long the range has existed. Murphy said property records and neighbor testimony could easily prove whether a range has existed since 2006. Both he and Salatino say nearly all the ranges they know of have popped up since then.
“[That] probably wipes out all the problems I know,” Murphy said.
A THIRD OPTION
Some point to Chittenden County’s lack of public ranges – it only has four – as a likely explanation for why people shoot in their backyards.
A potential solution that could appease both sides, and represent a middle ground between the extremes of regulation and doing nothing, is a town shooting range.
In a nine-page report to the selectboard this summer, a group of eight residents who oppose tighter shooting restrictions said a public range would “significantly reduce the allure” of backyard ranges.
“If shooters have an official range in town to shoot at (likely a far better shooting experience than their own backyard), the majority will use it,” they wrote, noting the town could pursue grant funding to help with the costs. Preliminary estimates show it could cost at least $350,000 to open a 10-lane indoor range.
VT F&W operates four of its own public shooting ranges, and the department’s website pinpoints over 30 others statewide. The department does not recognize backyard shooting ranges, nor does it promote their use due to safety concerns.
VT F&W education manager Alison Thomas said the state has attempted to build more ranges but consistently faces pushback from neighbors over noise concerns.
“Every time, there’s opposition,” Thomas said. “And if you have any opposition, it’s not worth it, because the litigation is horrible.”
The town itself appears uninterested in taking on that task. Police Chief Rick Garey strongly opposes the idea, and the manager’s office recommends against it, too, citing concerns over liability, cost and health issues associated with lead exposure.
Salatino said she’d gladly pay additional taxes to have a safe and regulated town shooting range, and Murphy said he’d support a range if the town wanted to build one. Yet he worries a range here could become obsolete in the next decade due to changing demographics. He suggested a better option may be a program that connects shooters with passes for Chittenden County’s other ranges.
Sure, that might mean sport shooters have to drive a half-hour or so, he said, but people drive an hour to ski.
“That’s a better result than letting people shoot in their backyard,” he said.
‘A RARE THING’
Most weeks for the better half of the last 25 years, John Bourbon has shot his pistols in the back of his three-acre property off Browns River Road, a little over a half-mile from the Westford town line.
Bourbon said he, like most other recreational shooters, makes sure to do so safely. Even though he lives in a “very rural” part of town, with a little more than a half-mile of floodplain extending out from his land, he still uses backstops to ensure his bullets don’t travel unimpeded.
“We do hate to be tagged or tarred with the same brush as those few relatively small percentage of the population who may not be so considerate,” he said.
Other shooters have shared similar sentiments. Mike Cady, who target shoots on his property off Lost Nation Road, said the vast majority of gun owners – “in excess of the 99th percentile” – use best practices when shooting.
Cady said he takes precautions but acknowledged if people don’t use manmade or natural backstops, “then it can absolutely be dangerous.” Neither Cady nor Bourbon support talk of forcing residents to jump through bureaucratic hoops just to shoot in their backyard.
“Life is regulated enough as it is,” Bourbon said, noting he doesn’t think officials should inspect his property for compliance.
“With that comes regulations and demands that you may have to modify your property,” he said, adding, “I’m one of those guys that inclined for less governmental intrusion.”
He also wondered: Who would be the arbitrator on what constitutes a safe range? What are their personal biases? What recourse would property owners have to appeal the decision?
“Those are the kind of things that make me nervous,” he said.
Some sport shooters believe supporters of tighter restrictions are looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
Kendall Chamberlain, an Old Pump Road resident who said his family has had a backyard range since 1948, said if shooters didn’t already use safe practices, accidents would be much more common.
“There’d be all kind of safety concerns, valid safety concerns, but there aren’t,” Chamberlain said. “People get hit by lightning every day, people drown every day. People don’t get shot from backyard ranges every day. It’s a rare thing.”
‘THE RIGHT THING’
Last month marked the 10-year anniversary of the death of John Reiss, a retired St. Michael’s College professor who was killed at his dining room table by a stray bullet fired from a backyard range. He was 73.
Prosecutors acknowledged they weren’t sure who fired the fatal shot because four men had been taking turns firing the weapons. Two of them were criminally charged and convicted in connection to Reiss’ death.
Sport shooters view Reiss’ death as an anomaly. They say it’s an isolated tragedy – the result of carelessness and negligence, yes, but one that shouldn’t be an indictment on the entire shooting community.
Salatino, meanwhile, can’t help but worry it’s only a matter of time before another Reiss situation occurs. Others like her have preferred to remain anonymous, taking advantage of online forums to describe fears over letting their children play outside, lest a bullet stray into their yard.
Salatino questions whether to speak publicly, too. She worries she might come across as anti-hunting, or worse, anti-gun, despite that her husband works at General Dynamics. She’s adamant she’s never had an issue with hunting or hunters, and believes people have a right to shoot their guns but wonders if there’s a compromise, one that considers shooters’ right to bear arms and her right to safety and serenity.
“I hope I can be gray instead of black and white,” she said.
That’s a position Cady, the Lost Nation Rd. resident, can get behind. He understands some people are afraid of guns, but he believes the best solution is communication, not knee-jerk reactions. He urges people to talk to their neighbors, perhaps to even ask to see their range.
“I truly believe the vast majority of gun owners are going to be open to that conversation,” he said, later adding, “You’ll find out it may not be as scary as you think.”
Murphy, the lawyer from Essex, said he’s lucky to have a communicative relationship with his neighbor. But he worries about those who aren’t so fortunate, like Salatino. She says she’s tried to talk to some of her neighbors but no longer feels confident her concerns will be heard.
Salatino thinks of her own passions – for mountain biking and skiing and gardening – and imagines someone taking those away. Who is she to do that to someone else? But in the same breath comes the frustration of knowing there may not be a way to make everyone happy. She recounted the incessant bang of gunfire drowning out music last Christmas Eve. Or the time a veteran had to leave her business because the barrage was too much for him to handle.
“I wish people could take it upon themselves to do the right thing,” she said.
Beyond that, her options feel sparse. She vacillates between the unrealistic desire to isolate – to snap her fingers and erect a big fence, one that could keep the noise and the bullets away – and the nagging feeling that nothing will change without intervention.
She hopes the solution lies somewhere in between.