The Essex Selectboard is planning a series of forums to address safe shooting in the town.
Although billed as a time to plan the process, last week’s meeting showcased the ongoing debate between individual rights and public safety.
Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose briefed the selectboard March 20 on a report detailing lessons from Colchester and Williston, two towns that recently revamped their ordinances. One of his biggest takeaways was to phase-in any changes.
He suggested starting with Indian Brook Park and Saxon Hill Forest, two popular walking and biking locations.
“It’s a tough enough issue to deal with,” LaRose said. “If we break it out into pieces, we’ll find more success, quicker.”
Shooting is currently prohibited in Essex Jct. and in some of the more densely populated areas of Essex Town.
LaRose has said the safest approach would be prohibiting shooting throughout. Yet after speaking with other local municipalities, he believes the selectboard could also consider qualifying language instead of an all-out ban.
Colchester established limited areas where only specific firearms can be used. Williston has unrestricted use south of the interstate, while rifle and shotguns with slug shells are prohibited to the north, LaRose’s report shows.
He said these compromises helped push through the changes in both towns. Still, he expects a lengthy process regardless of the town’s route and advocated a series of public forums.
Some selectboard members also wished to find a moderator to help move the discussions along. Town staff plans to report back with a proposal.
It’s the selectboard’s latest step since LaRose’s proposal last September, which he drafted after a Deer Crossing Lane resident found a rifle bullet lodged in his wall in 2015.
Last week’s meeting also comes over eight years after Old Stage Road resident John Reiss was killed by a stray bullet from a neighboring gun range, sparking a review of the firearms ordinance. Then, a selectboard-appointed citizen taskforce studied the ordinance and recommended a number of changes, including a public shooting range.
The selectboard never acted on the recommendations.
Citing lessons from the 2009 process, board vice-chairwoman Irene Wrenner said the town must capture input from people who felt put out. She’s one of only two members still on the board from that time; Levy is the other.
“Some people were prevented from showing up,” Wrenner said. “Some people were prevented from speaking, or at least that was their impression. We have to be very sensitive to the fact that some people have just been intimidated and do not want to come out and try doing that again.”
Resident Shaun McCuin, who served on the 2009 committee, said he hadn’t seen LaRose’s new report but was encouraged by discussion about restrictions instead of an all-out ban.
He cautioned the selectboard to not rush any decision and noted one potential snag: distinguishing hunting from sport shooting, something the taskforce struggled with.
“Hunting is probably less of a worrisome thing than just a shooting range because you could go through the whole season and not even shoot at a deer,” McCuin said.
LaRose said state law grandfathers existing gun ranges, even in no-shooting zones. New ordinances can only prevent private new ranges from being established. Any such ordinance would encounter “unchartered waters” since sport shooting ranges aren’t defined by state law.
“If the town wants to take up an issue with someone who we deem does not have a sport shooting range, and they deem that they do, that’s a court battle,” LaRose said.
Igor Polenov, who moved to Essex earlier this month, said the selectboard should limit participation in the forums.
“The parts of town that don’t allow [shooting] should not have a say in the fate of the parts of the town that do,” Polenov said.
Resident Keith Cutler called for a high burden of proof for anyone who claims shooting on private land is harmful. He urged the selectboard to focus solely on public land.
“I don’t think that there’s ever been a reason for somebody to drive me in here and draw on my land on the map and say you cannot do this,” Cutler said. “Unless you can prove that at some point I was a danger in the past, in the present or the future, I don’t think there’s a reason to even talk about it. It’s my land.”
In response, resident Patty Davis asked if Reiss was on public land when he was killed.
“He was in his house,” said selectboard chairman Max Levy. “He was at his dining room table.”
“So you knew the answer already,” a crowd member asked Davis.
“I just want to know what happened,” she said.