To applause from a standing-room-only crowd, the Jackson County Legislature on Monday repealed a seven-month old ordinance that banned firing weapons in much of the rural part of the county.
County legislators said the rule was well-intentioned but – as citizens’ reactions had underlined – overly broad.
“It was excessive,” resident Melissa Morehead, lives in Blue Springs and has 36 acres on Major Road, told legislators.
Legislators said they agreed.
“We have certainly gotten your message,” said Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City.
Legislators are likely to come back at some point to address the underlying safety issue: Since the beginning of 2012, the county has received and investigated 16 complaints of bullets crossing property lines, in some cases hitting houses. The Sheriff’s Department has said the county ordinance in effect until last December – the standard now back in force after Monday’s action – is too fuzzy on what “densely populated” means and that courts have consistently thrown out those cases.
So legislators in December banned shooting guns, bow and arrow and other weapons in the county’s “urban tier.” That includes areas that are generally near cities and likely to be annexed in the future, but it’s also come to include areas farther out and less densely developed.
“If we can at some point address these issues in a meaningful manner, I think we should do it,” said Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs. He and others said they hope for citizen involvement on that point, and he said groups such as the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, which held a well-attended meeting on the issue last week, should be included in the process.
“We would be happy to help,” the shooters group’s president, Kevin L. Jamison, told legislators.
‘One hasty move’
Legislators said they were trying to get a handle on incidents such as the 16 reported since the beginning of 2012 (the Sheriff’s Department also says it’s 40 going back to 2009).
Last fall, one family sat down the legislators about their concerns. A bullet had struck their house while children were playing outside. In December, legislators unanimously voted to ban shooting in the county’s urban tier, essentially adapting a long-range planning document for law-enforcement purposes, trying to get a legal definition of “densely populated” that would stand up in court.
Ground says, however, the “urban tier” approach just wasn’t the right idea.
“While I was well-intentioned back in December, it was not well thought out by me,” said Grounds, who stressed that he was speaking for himself. Other legislators who spoke generally said the said the same thing. Grounds also said the fault here does not lie with the sheriff or the county counselor’s office.
“It’s a legislative function. It’s my responsibility,” he said.
County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon on Monday showed legislators a series of maps to outline the stray-bullet issue. Those maps show that roughly one-third of the county is unincorporated, mostly east of Missouri 7. For long-range planning purposes, the county divides those unincorporated areas into three categories:
• The “urban tier” is generally closest to cities: Blue Summit, the area immediately east of Sugar Creek and north of U.S. 24, the Lake Jacomo/Blue Springs Lake area and south toward Greenwood, the areas north and east of Grain Valley, and the area immediately east of Blue Springs. Grounds said part of the problem is that legislators didn’t realize that the more of the county is now classified as urban tier than in the past. Morehead, for example, said she and her neighbors together have 300 acres, all with just one house.
• Areas designated “suburban” – less overall space than “urban” – includes the areas surrounding Buckner and west toward the Fort Osage High School area and the Curtis Road/Atherton Road area. There’s also a narrow north-south corridor south of Grain Valley; that corridor also curls east to the area southwest of Oak Grove.
• “Rural” applies mainly to the northeast and southeast corners of the county – for example, the areas surrounding Sibley, Levasy and, for the most part, Lone Jack.
Of the 16 stray-bullet incidents, half have been in the urban tier. Seven have been since beginning of 2014, when the new ordinance had taken effect, and nine were in 2012 and 2013. The Sheriff’s Department had made no arrests under the new shooting ban but had issued warnings. The investigations of bullets crossing property lines have come from property owners’ complaints.
Of the eight incidents in the urban tier, one was just west of Lake Tapawingo, two were in the Blue Mills area just north of U.S. 24 and one slightly to the west, one was north of Argo Road and east of M-7, two were northeast of Grain Valley, and one was near Route AA between Grain Valley and Blue Springs.
Property owners said the county went too far with the urban tier ban.
Morehead said she and her husband heard about it in early July from a neighbor.
“And it seemed so ridiculous that we sat back and said this can’t be right,” she told legislators Monday.
She singled out the Sheriff’s Department, then the county counselor’s office and then the Legislature for acting hastily in December, drawing applause from the dozens of people gathered at the Courthouse Annex in Independence.
“In one hasty move, you criminalized hunting,” she said, adding that people also need to be able to control varmints on their properties.
“You criminalized that, and you didn’t tell us,” she said.
After the meeting, Grounds said Morehead had made a good point.
“You ought to think a lot before you make someone a criminal,” he said.
Jamison, the head of the shooters group and also an attorney, raised other issues as well. The county ordinance didn’t leave room for shooting in self-defense, something he said the county legally has to do. He said not allowing residents to shoot varmints amounts to a government taking of property rights. He noted possible conflicts with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
He stressed that gun owners are law-abiding and generally know the rules.
“We all know shooting at cars and in areas where a house may be is a violation,” he said.
The Department of Conservation also has raised concerns. Some of the areas it manages lie in the urban tier. More broadly, wildlife biologist Joe Debold told legislators that controlling coyotes, skunks, raccoons – but most especially the area’s high number of deer – is a job for which the department relies heavily on residents.
“We rely on the citizens more than anything to manage the wildlife population,” he said.
High concentrations of deer can accelerate the spread of such problems as chronic wasting disease and blue tongue disease. More importantly, he said, more deer mean more deer-vehicle accidents and, possibly, human fatalities.
“One deer is not worth a person’s life. It simply isn’t,” he said.
Monday’s move means the county’s 30-year-old rules remain in effect, mainly, no shooting across property lines. It’s also illegal, for example, to shoot at a vehicle or a house, and it’s illegal to shoot recklessly.
Legislative Chairman Scott Burnett encouraged ongoing citizen involvement on the issue.
“You keep track of us,” he said, to which one citizen from the floor quickly responded, “We will.”