Shooting ranges were back on the menu Monday night as the selectboard dove into its firearms discharge ordinance revisions, revisiting a proposal that would require residents who shoot in their backyards to register their properties with the town.

The board spent much of its two-hour meeting this week vetting a form created by town staff that would require backyard shooters to submit a slew of information about their properties. But members took no action on the matter, instead deciding to wait until at least their next meeting, scheduled for July 15, at which time members will again confront a central question of how much information the municipality should be collecting of its citizens.

A draft of the form showed property owners would need to submit their name, address, parcel ID number, date the range was established, types of firearms they planned to use, intended use of the range and expected hours of operation, in addition to a site plan of the entire range and proof of insurance with a minimum of a $500,000 liability insurance.

In the end, a majority of the board appeared in favor of at least nixing the question on the specific types of firearms, concerned that it would create a de-facto gun registry. But they were less clear on much of the form’s remaining requirements.

Indeed, many decisions still stand between the selectboard and a final ordinance change, and Monday night’s meeting raised more questions than it answered. Questions like how much of a financial burden does the insurance requirement place on homeowners? Who should be signing off on the forms, and does this force the town to take on any potential liability?

But perhaps the biggest question of all is how will the town decide whether a range is safe.

One idea is to have the police department examine the submitted maps to determine if the homeowner’s safety precautions pass muster. But the PD would still need to base their decisions on some specific standard. And while town staff recommended using the National Rifle Association’s manual, some in attendance Monday night challenged that idea, explaining the NRA guidelines are too stringent for backyard ranges.

“It’s a great manual if you’re going to go commercial and you’re going to do big things,” said Randy Burrows, a Milton resident who said he’s had a range at his home for decades. “Financially, none of us in this room could afford it.”

Members of the Essex selectboard discuss proposed changes to the town’s firearm discharge ordinance on Monday night at Essex High School (Photo by Colin Flanders).

Police Chief Rick Garey agreed that the NRA manual was not ideal. “Trying to flip through that manual and decipher what is needed is a nightmare,” he said. Instead, he suggested the selectboard task a working group of police officers and firearms experts to design a set of standards that could be applied to the town. The idea gained some interest from the board and will likely resurface at next month’s meeting.

Like past meetings, the board also opened up the floor to the crowd, and public feedback sounded markedly similar to that heard at the handful of meetings on the firearms ordinance last year, with the bulk of comments underscoring the tension between safety and individual rights. Some speakers urged the selectboard to do what it could to protect residents, while others felt the board’s current direction represented a clear infringement on their constitutional right to bear arms.

The selectboard has already made some progress after last summer’s robust public engagement effort, shoring up new regulations that would prohibit shooting at the Essex Tree Farm and allow it at two town parks – Indian Brook and Saxon Hill – during a 45-day window covering deer hunting season, if enacted.

The shooting range discussion is complicated by the overall opaqueness of Vermont laws on the issue. According to a Vermont Supreme Court ruling, sport shooting ranges are exempt from regulation if they existed before May 2006 and maintained the same historic level of noise and use since.

Regardless, forcing backyard shooters to register with the town would give at least some control over a practice that, as of now, has virtually no municipal oversight. No one in town – not police, not elected officials – has any idea how many backyard ranges  exist within Essex’s borders.

But unless members decide to drastically water down their notification forms, they may find the ordinance popping back on up on their radar down the road – this time, with a court date attached.

“This was supposed to start out as just a notification of where ranges are,” said Ben Broe, a consistent critic of the ordinance changes whose family owns land in town. “Now, from this checklist, it’s turned into this big long notice that’s really going to turn into a registration. I feel that this is very much overstepping the authority that’s been delegated by the state.” He added, “I guess that will be decided by a court eventually, if that’s how it goes.”


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ben Broe as an Essex resident. We regret the error.