Bristol gun advocates take aim at proposed ordinance
BRISTOL — Pete Lossman was among the 70 or so Bristol residents at Monday night’s hearing in Holley Hall on a proposed ordinance to regulate the discharge of firearms in Bristol.
He was among the many who claimed the ordinance would burden responsible gun owners only, while doing nothing to curb the “stupid” behavior of those who lack the common sense to use guns safely.
A new law isn’t going to protect Bristol residents from such people, Lossman opined.
“You just can’t fix stupid,” he said.
But there were others at the hearing who were willing to give such an ordinance a try.
For close to two hours, citizens came forward and spoke their minds, directly addressing the selectboard. Most spoke against the proposed ordinance. Some spoke in favor.
THE BRISTOL SELECTBOARD listens to a speaker Monday night during a public hearing on the town’s proposed gun ordinance.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The tone for the hearing was set by Selectboard Chair John “Peeker” Heffernan, who instructed the crowd to be respectful and give others a chance to speak.
“It’s OK to disagree,” he said. “We just don’t need to be disagreeable.”
Heffernan described the hearing as a “fact finding mission” for the selectboard, whose members were there to listen.
On April 17 the selectboard asked Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs to look at similar ordinances in other towns and draft a proposed ordinance, which led to the public hearing.
This was after a number of residents brought concerns to the selectboard in the spring about incidents in which persons discharged firearms close to homes. The residents expressed concern for their safety and said law enforcement had told them there was little that could be done in the absence of a town ordinance.
In general, the ordinance prohibits discharging firearms within a 500-foot safety zone around someone else’s property. The chief of police could grant permits for discharging firearms within the 500-foot safety zone, after visiting the site in question (see story on this page).
A predominant concern for those speaking against the ordinance was that it was unnecessary and wouldn’t prevent isolated incidents of irresponsible shooting.
Many asked why a handful of unsafe incidents should affect all Bristol residents, including responsible gun owners? Many questioned whether such an ordinance would or would not be in line with state statute. Many felt it would inhibit their ability to practice shooting bows or guns at targets on their property and act as a damper on hunting rights. Some raised logistical questions about whether the 500-foot safety zone the ordinance proposed was unwieldy and whether a 300-foot or smaller zone would be more workable.
STEVE KIELY SPEAKS against Bristol’s proposed gun ordinance during a public hearing on the topic Monday night in Holley Hall.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Because the ordinance as drafted applied to “firearms, BB guns, or similar weapons” including “bows, cross bows, paint ball guns, or sling shots,” some wondered how far the scope of “similar weapons” might reach. Would students at Mount Abraham Union High School be able to practice archery, throw javelins or launch lacrosse balls?
Others raised practical concerns about how the ordinance would affect the town budget. How many more police hours would the town be paying for to accommodate all those site visits? And what would be the town’s liability in issuing such permits?
Brian Nye identified himself as a Marine Corps vet who’s used firearms consistently in his 21 years on his Bristol property.
“With the 500-foot limit there isn’t any place on my lot where I could legally shoot,” he said.
Nye emphasized, “Safety and firearms are what we do.”
Fred Schroeder brought in a blowgun, a slingshot and a bow; he brandished each and called the proposed ordinance “ridiculous.”
“We live in a rural area and we’ve been getting along fine,” he said.
“I apologize for the two incidents that happened where people used poor judgment,” said Randy Benedict. “But I totally oppose any new gun legislation from the town, state or federal level … I don’t know how to solve this problem. I feel bad for the situations that occurred. They should not have. All the people who are here, who are against this ordinance, are gun owners. None of them would have fired their firearms in these two instances. But it’s going to affect them all if this goes through.”
Eric Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, came all the way from Westminster to give a gun advocate perspective on Vermont statute.
ERIC CUTLER, RIGHT, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, speaks at Monday night’s gun ordinance public hearing in Bristol. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“This town is subject to state law,” said Cutler, who also said that the organization’s attorney would be contacting the Bristol selectboard.
Martin Amos noted that while the proposed ordinance makes exceptions for shooting rabid animals, “You can’t even shoot a woodchuck on your property.”
Gun owner Gary Clark emphasized the importance of communicating with one’s neighbors. Clark said he opposed the ordinance because he, like Lossman, didn’t think it would solve the problem. He then explained his approach to guns and neighbors.
“I’ve hunted all my life. I shoot my guns a lot. But I do not shoot my guns without contacting my neighbors. Both neighbors. On both sides.”
Clark continued,” I just think the solution to this problem is for us to go back home and ask ourselves before you go to bed tonight, ‘What have I done recently for my neighbor? How can I improve the relationship with my neighbor? I think if we could solve that problem, we would solve a lot of the problems in our society. And I hope we’ll all think about that.”
Proponents emphasized that the ordinance was not anti-gun or anti-hunter (indeed more than one identified themselves as gun owners), but was about public safety.
“It’s just safety,” said Travis Friend. “It’s not taking away anybody’s rights.”
What happens, they asked, if a neighbor behaves in a way that seems irresponsible and endangers others? What happens if that neighbor won’t engage in dialogue? What happens if law enforcement officers say they can’t help because there’s no town ordinance?
TONYA LAWYER SPEAKS Monday night at a Bristol hearing about a proposed gun ordinance that would regulate the discharge of firearms in Bristol. Lawyer was among those residents that first approached the selectboard about writing a gun ordinance.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Tonya Lawyer was among the Bristol residents who voiced concerns at the April 17 selectboard meeting. At that meeting, she described driving back to her home at Broadview Estates and encountering a neighbor firing a handgun in the direction of the road. Lawyer said she called the Vermont State Police and was told that without a town ordinance there was nothing they could do about it.
State police troopers finally did arrive after receiving multiple calls. At Monday’s hearing, Lawyer said she and her neighbors had tried to pursue a charge of reckless endangerment but that hasn’t gone anywhere.
“I’m a gun owner. I’m a former police officer. I hunt. I fish,” said Lawyer. “Not everybody uses common sense. And when you add alcohol to the mix or drugs it makes it even worse.”
Lawyer emphasized, “We are looking for safety measures. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, go talk to your neighbors. But what if your neighbor is drunk or angry or doesn’t want to talk to you? What if the police say they can do nothing to help you?”
Lawyer laid out in detail the different tactics she and others had taken in response to the Broadview shooting incident. Posting one’s land has no bearing on someone’s ability to shoot into your property from outside a so-called safety zone, she pointed out. And posting doesn’t affect target practice, only hunting.
She said they had exhausted a number of avenues of redress. And Lawyer emphasized that the town had every right to draft an ordinance regulating the discharge of firearms and pointed out a number of towns that had done so successfully.
VIRGINIA BUKOWSKI SPEAKS at a public hearing Monday night about an incident that prompted her to suggest to the Bristol selectboard a gun ordinance that would restrict the discharge of firearms in Bristol.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Ginnie Bukowski described hearing gun shots outside her home on East Street only to discover that a man and a woman were shooting a pistol on her property, less than 100 feet from her house. The locations was also less than 50 feet from Route 116 and less than 200 feet from the main trail to the Ledges.
“That was pretty darn stupid,” said Bukowski.
A pro-hunting Vermonter, she reiterated that the ordinance is not about taking away guns. But she also emphasized that the wider community has a right to feel safe in their homes.
“It’s a law to keep the community safe, not to keep gun owners safe,” she said.
Advocates on both sides of the issue challenged the community to find an effective way to address the kinds of gun safety issues raised by the East Street and Broadview Estates incidents.
Karien Wisell noted that as Vermont’s population density increases, these incidents are likely to become more frequent. She questioned whether kids were as well schooled in gun safety as they once were.
“My father took me out on the mountain and I learned how to shoot a shotgun,” said Wisell. “But now you have a lot of kids growing up here who don’t have that.”
Instead, said Wisell, kids shoot paint guns and other toy weapons, and that gives them the wrong idea.
“You have to have respect for a weapon because it’s not a toy,” she said. “We need some place to teach kids safe gun use.”
SELECTBOARD NEXT STEPS
In a follow-up interview with the Independent, Heffernan said the board appreciated the respectful way in which residents expressed their different points of views.
The selectboard has asked Town Administrator Therese Kirby to do more research on firearms ordinances in other towns, and on state statutes. The board will discuss the proposed ordinance at its Aug. 7 meeting, but won’t vote then.
Indeed, Heffernan said he doesn’t anticipate a vote on the proposed ordinance any time soon. Selectboard members are weighing concerns about public safety, assessing the will of the citizenry overall, and debating amongst themselves whether an ordinance is an effective response, how it fits with Vermont statute, how successful other such town ordinances have been, and what the proper scope of such an ordinance should be.
Heffernan encouraged Bristol residents to keep engaged in the process.
“Bear with us and don’t be afraid to bring your concerns to the board. That’s the only way to be heard.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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