All curbs lifted on backyard gun shots in Florida

Jan 26, 2013

The following article was published in The Palm Beach Post on January 26, 2013:

All curbs lifted on backyard gun shots in Florida

By Toni-Ann Miller

Sheila Lowe was tending to one of her horses a few weeks ago when she heard a succession of bangs.

The noise spooked the animal, which reared up and almost knocked her over.

Lowe and her husband, Randy, followed the noise — it hadn’t been the first time they’d heard it — and traced it to a nearby nursery.

Turns out the owner had permitted target practice in a corner of his 80-acre nursery, just across the canal from Lowe.

Lowe called the sheriff’s office, but there was nothing deputies could do.

She found out that day that it is legal for Floridians to fire guns on private property, regardless of whether there’s a school, church, park or home next door.

“Here’s the bottom line: You could discharge that firearm anywhere in the state of Florida, no matter what it’s near, as long it was discharged on private property,” said Greg Kridos, chief of intake for the State Attorney’s Office. “It could literally be the backyard of a residence.”

The state law, on the books since the late 1980s, prohibits local governments from enacting gun and ammunition ordinances. That had widely been ignored for some time, and local governments made regulations. Palm Beach County outlawed guns in child care facilities and government buildings and made it illegal to fire a gun east of 20-Mile Bend, which would have addressed Lowe’s concerns.

But in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott signed a measure that put teeth into the state restriction: Local officials could be fined, removed from office and responsible for their own legal bills they’re sued over local gun ordinances. So Palm Beach County repealed its laws.

County commissioners took it a step further by suing the state legislature and the governor, who they say does not have the right to threaten removal from office. The lawsuit called the penalties of the new law “political bullying that serves no legitimate governmental purpose.” Broward County has since joined the suit, which is currently at the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

The Lowes, who live on Sugarcane Lane in the Homeland Equestrian Community, are gun owners who go to a range to shoot targets. They say they have been hearing gunshots in their neighborhood for years, but it didn’t become a problem until their horse, Thor, almost hurt Sheila on Jan. 12.

“It’s about the safety issue,” she said. “Own your gun, but don’t shoot your gun in my back yard. Don’t shoot where there’s people and animals that can get hurt.”

“If we’re riding back here (along the trails surrounding each lot), we’re in direct range of where they’re shooting into that pile of dirt.”

The shots were coming from Country Joe’s Nursery in the 6100 block of State Road 7. The pile of dirt or sand Lowe said was used to stop the bullets is across a canal, a few doors down from Lowe and about 100 feet from Michele Burns’ daughter’s property — and horses.

Burns said it had not been much of an issue before, because the target practice was occasional. Two weekends ago, however, she said “it just kept going.”

“We were out riding, and the gunshots sounded like they were right next to us,” Burns said. “Our horses were going crazy.”

The owner of Country Joe’s, David Englert, said what he was doing that day was “well within the law.”

“I’m a licensed holder, so I’m very conscious of whatever happens,” Englert said. “I am concerned (with safety); that’s why I practice my target practice safely and making sure I comply with the law.”

According to Lowe, Englert suggested she and other residents not ride their horses during the time he allows people to shoot targets on his land — Saturdays and Sundays.

“We all work for a living,” Lowe said. “We don’t ride during the week.”

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said shooting doesn’t have to happen in people’s backyards because there are other, safer ways.

“Bullets travel a long ways,” Bradshaw said. “There’s plenty of firearm ranges.”

An assistant county attorney said the 2011 law change allows local governments to regulate gun businesses through zoning, but that wouldn’t apply in Lowe’s case.

“If the neighbor’s gun activities do not constitute a ‘business,’ the County is preempted from adopting or enforcing any regulations that govern the non-business related gun activity of a local landowner,” attorney Amy Petrick wrote in an email.

Marion Hammer, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said legislation regarding the reckless or negligent discharge of firearms was passed in 2012 to address issues on public and private property.

“There are circumstances under which you are allowed to shoot,” Hammer said, “but you cannot shoot if you endanger other people and their property.”

One remedy for bystanders and neighbors is culpable negligence, said Kridos of the State Attorney’s Office. If a bullet left the shooter’s property or endangered other people, authorities might file criminal negligence charges.

Lowe said her concern is that negligence and injury will have to occur before lawmakers look at what the current statute allows gun owners to do near other homes, residents and animals.

She said she’s taken on the fight to see changes made to the law to ensure a safer environment for people and their animals.

“We’re not opposed to owning guns,” Lowe said. “That’s not what we’re concerned about. This law is going to enable irresponsible gun owners to be more irresponsible.

“I want to feel safe where I live.”

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