Island County gun laws come under fire

Residents of rural communities in Island County may soon have a say in whether or not their neighbors can shoot guns in their backyards.

Residents of rural communities in Island County may soon have a say in whether or not their neighbors can shoot guns in their backyards.

Last week, the Island County commissioners discussed a set of draft rules which propose a petition process for neighborhoods seeking to ban or allow the discharge of firearms in their area.

Although usually sparsely attended, the weekly staff session drew a standing room only crowd of hunters, representatives from local gun clubs and general Second Amendment advocates.

District 2 Commissioner Angie Homola, the primary sponsor of the proposed legislation, immediately addressed the crowd in the hopes of clearing up any misconceptions about the new rules and why they are being brought forward in the first place.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of emails coming through our office that Commissioner Homola is trying to stop people from owning guns in Island County and nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “This is just an opportunity to address the needs of citizens.”

“I don’t get to pick and choose what people come and ask me for,” she said. “People have come and said they are afraid for their lives and they would like an opportunity to protect themselves and can you please help.”

Earlier this year, residents from several neighborhoods along West Beach Road asked the board to ban shooting in their area. The request was based on complaints about a neighbor, William Watanabe, who has a private firing range on his property.

Island County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Wallace confirmed this week that deputies visited the range twice during that period and found that Watanabe was adhering to existing laws.

Residents, however, were and still worry that it’s only a matter of time before an accident occurs and someone is hurt due to the proximity of neighbors. The board did not approve the shooting ban at the time but residents were given the OK to begin researching a prospective ordinance.

Over the next several months, they compiled a large binder with information ranging from a ballistics study to ordinances already in effect in other counties around the state, said Homola during Wednesday’s meeting.

That research helped draft an ordinance that outlines a process in which communities that contain at least 20 parcels and 20 acres could petition the board to ban shooting in their area.

The draft rules say density in such areas would have to be such that the discharge of firearms “creates a reasonable likelihood that humans, domestic animals or property will be jeopardized.”

Also, only petitions with the support of 50 percent plus one would be forwarded to the board for review and action.

Owners’ concerns

The proposal stirred the ire and concern of many, especially members of shooting organizations.

In a letter to the commissioners, the Holmes Harbor Rod & Gun Club’s board of directors charged the rules with being too broad, that they place no burden on petitioners to establish a “reasonable likelihood” of danger and that population density is a poor proxy for objective evidence that such a condition exists.

“Use of population density and simple majority creates a situation whereby well established and safe shooting areas like the island gun clubs can be effectively shut down if enough people (who) simply don’t approve of shooting or dislike the noise move into an area,” the letter said.

Responding to such concerns, Homola noted in her introduction Wednesday that the draft rules need some fine tuning. Specifically, existing licensed firing ranges should be grandfathered in.

She also made it clear during the meeting, and in a later phone message, that it is not her intent to place limitations or restrict hunting in established areas.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson made clear she is against the proposal with a host of objections, from questioning why the draft had been legally reviewed before she’d seen a copy to concerns that the rules exceed the board’s authority.

“I’m very, very concerned about this,” she said.

Homola noted many other counties have shooting rules in place now and they are even more restrictive than what’s being proposed.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson also addressed concerns with the draft, saying exemptions addressing both shooting clubs and hunting are needed before she will give her support.

Population growth, however, does warrant the consideration of new safety regulations, she said.

“We all know there are places we used to be able to hunt 20 or 40 years ago and that there are now TV screens you can see through the trees,” she said.

She was also adamant that petitions should require a 60 percent majority of affected homeowners.

‘Cost of a life’

Emerson said the petition process would incur administrative costs for the county and that an appropriate fees should be adopted with the rules.

“Has any of that been considered?” Emerson asked.

In response, Homola said, “I guess I would ask what is the cost of a life?”

The remark earned widespread grumbling from the crowd. Frustrations mounted throughout the meeting with one man leaving the room after an outburst directed at Homola. At one point, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown had to ask for order.

Homola told the crowd that she doesn’t get to choose the issues that are brought to her by constituents and that in this case, she’s not sure how to make everyone happy. She said this is a response to a community request and an attempt to balance people’s rights.

“Everybody’s rights,” Homola said. “The rights of those who own guns and the rights of those who want to feel safe in their homes.”

Price Johnson said the issue would be discussed again at the board’s regular Monday meeting, Nov. 26, but the commissioners won’t take action regarding the shooting rules until mid-December at the soonest.