Shooting restraints shot down in Island County

Freeland residents Mike Gallion and Ray Gabelein, forefront, speak with Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson during the board’s Monday meeting following a discussion about proposed no-shooting rules. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Freeland residents Mike Gallion and Ray Gabelein, forefront, speak with Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson during the board’s Monday meeting following a discussion about proposed no-shooting rules.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

A controversial proposal that would have paved the way for no-shooting areas in Island County was struck down this week.

On Wednesday, Republican Island County commissioners Kelly Emerson and Jill Johnson refused the pleas of Democratic Commissioner Helen Price Johnson to continue the discussion at a later meeting, agreeing instead to kill the proposal once and for all.

The hot button issue, which has been under debate since last summer, once again drew a large crowd, including a television news crew. While most of those in attendance were critics, a few supporters were sprinkled among the audience and the decision was not what they wanted to hear.

“To say we’re disappointed is an understatement,” said Jack Lyons, a resident of Norcliffe.

Norcliffe, Sea View and Tilbury residents sparked the creation of the controversial proposal last year when they signed a petition and asked the board to ban shooting in their community.

One of their neighbors has a firing range on his property and they believe it’s a safety risk.

The board declined to approve the request outright but agreed to begin drafting standards that communities needed to meet before the commissioners consider shooting bans in their areas.

Lyons and other residents assisted in the process, volunteering hundreds of hours of their own time. They examined the codes of all 39 counties in the state and claim that 22 already have similar rules in place for densely populated areas.

The proposal stalled late last year, however, in the wake of public outcry and because the primary sponsor, former Commissioner Angie Homola, was unseated by Johnson.

The issue was set to be discussed again Wednesday but was almost decided two days ahead of schedule.

Emerson, a stark critic of the proposal, ran Monday’s meeting and made a surprise request to settle the issue then to avoid wasting any more time on a proposal that has the support of “only one board member.”

She said the county doesn’t have the resources to administer new rules and claimed the population base on Whidbey or Camano islands simply doesn’t justify their creation.

“I would be willing to table this item indefinitely until a time in which changes in the demographics of the area show more of a need for this,” Emerson said.

Helen Price Johnson, the board’s chairwoman at the time and the sole remaining supporter of the proposal, was out of town and was unable to join by telephone as planned.

Although the room was filled with property rights and Second Amendment advocates who were highly critical of the draft rules, Johnson refused to support Emerson’s request for reasons of public trust.

She said she believes the proposal “goes too far in addressing a particular neighborhood’s concerns” and that the county already has an elected public safety officer charged with making decisions of pubic safety: Island County Sheriff Mark Brown.

In fact, the commissioner made it clear that she fully intends to vote against the draft ordinance but that she would Wednesday, the day the public was told it would be discussed.

“I understand I have the right to do it right now, but it’s important that we are honest and predictable with the public and we told them we’d be talking about it on Wednesday,” she said.

Also, waiting would allow Price Johnson the chance to weigh in.

“If there was an issue that was valuable to me, I would not want to be left out of that part of the discussion … nor would I predict that you liked it, Commissioner Emerson, when it was happening to you,” Johnson said. “The best way to lead is by example.”

Emerson responded by saying she didn’t feel it was “good management practice” to needlessly delay the issue. She added later that her request was not an attempt at subterfuge or to get something done while Price Johnson was absent.

“I have no reservations of representing my people with her being here,” Emerson said.

Both commissioners stuck to their guns Wednesday, agreeing not to move forward with the proposal for the reasons they mentioned Monday.

Price Johnson, who was again not physically present though she participated by telephone, pleaded with her colleagues to postpone the decision to another Monday meeting when residents could voice their concerns.

When that didn’t work, she went on offense, questioning Sheriff Brown how he would feel if it were his children or grandchildren who lived next door to the firing range.

“Would you feel they were safe?” she asked.

Brown, who was asked to comment at the meeting, maintained his position that the firing range under dispute is not unsafe, nor is there statistical data of a public safety issue warranting the ordinance.

While the range is close to other homes, similar risk is taken every day by drivers when other vehicles pass them in the opposite direction at high speeds, he said. In both cases, disaster could occur if a driver crosses the center line or a shooter aims in the wrong direction, the sheriff noted.

Emerson and Johnson would not be swayed, however, and the proposal is effectively dead. Several of those who spoke against the shooting rules this week said they were relieved the issue was finally put to bed.

“There’s no reason for it,” said Mike Gallion, a Freeland resident who has a small firing range on his property.

He believes the proposal was an affront to his First, Second and Fourth Amendment rights and that voiced public safety concerns are nothing more than a smoke screen for the real issue — noise.

“This is not about safety,” Gallion said. “It’s about sound.”

Similarly, Ray Gabelein, also of Freeland, said he had serious doubts that administration of the rules would have resulted in fair decision making. Also, such decisions should not be made by the board.

“This is simple,” Gabelein said. “If the sheriff feels the need, let him bring it forward.”

According to Lyons, noise has never been the issue. This is a matter of public safety and one the community can’t afford to simply give up. Lyons said he’s convinced the board’s decision was “political” in nature and that residents will likely begin looking at other options, such as taking their case to the state.

“We obviously aren’t going to get anywhere with our county government,” Jack Lyons said.


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