GREENFIELD — For Kristie Upton and her husband, Brian, their next-door neighbors’ use of guns on their property has long been a source of grief.

Kristie Upton describes hearing gunshots ring out from her neighbors’ property for hours, disturbing her horses and the dogs she trains at her home business. She said she often feels afraid of being shot herself and has avoided doing things like spending time outdoors and inviting family members to her home.

“It’s horrible and scary and very unsafe,” Upton said. “…Any normal person would know that this is wrong.”

The Uptons’ neighbors, Marion and Linda White, have a different though no less positive view of the situation. They said Upton is the one who is making their lives difficult.

“She files police reports all the time because that’s her only avenue of harassing people,” Marion White said, adding that the couple’s relationship with their longtime next-door neighbor was fine until two years ago. (Upton said she has objected to the shooting for closer to 20 years.)

Linda White said the couple occasionally target-shoot on their property — safely, with a small pistol. She said the frequency is perhaps once or twice a year.

The Uptons and the Whites each live on properties of several acres in unincorporated Hancock County, near Greenfield. Robert Campbell, chief deputy of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, said the department has received numerous calls about shooting on the Whites’ property over a long period of time. He said law enforcement has spoken with both sides about following ordinances and respecting their neighbors.

The neighbors’ dispute has become part of a policy discussion for Hancock County. At a meeting earlier this week, the Uptons and customers of their dog-training business, Custom Canine, spoke against a change that would make it easier for county residents to fire guns in their backyards.

The Uptons believe that keeping the current rule — prohibiting recreational shooting within 300 feet of any residence, including one’s own — is the only way to take action against what they see as egregious behavior from their neighbors. The Whites, who were represented at the meeting by their attorney, disagree.

The Hancock County Area Plan Commission held a lengthy public hearing on the issue on Tuesday, July 28. In the commissioners’ court, which has often been nearly empty since the beginning of the pandemic, the room was crowded to the point that social distancing was difficult.

Many county residents spoke out against the ordinance, and a handful spoke in favor. Ultimately, the members of the commission decided the matter needed more research. They plan to revisit it in two months.

The proposed change would alter the definition of a “shooting range,” currently defined as anywhere firearms are discharged for a recreational purpose, to exclude people shooting on their own property as long as they are at least 300 feet from any residence other than their own. This would include only properties zoned as agricultural, county residential or rural residential and located outside the limits of cities or towns.

The proposal was brought to the plan commission by the county commissioners. Two of them, Brad Armstrong and John Jessup, said they felt the current ordinance was too restrictive of residents’ ability to shoot on their own property.

Mike Dale, executive director of the Hancock County Area Plan Commission, said he thinks the current ordinance needs work. However, he said, the proposed change does not offer enough specificity to fix it.

“Our ordinance does need work,” Dale said. “It’s overly broad, it’s too broadly stated. But as written, I think this could propose some problems.”

Steve Elsbury, the attorney for the Whites, spoke about learning about the county’s ordinances through his clients. Elsbury said the county’s definitions of both a shooting range and of hunting are too broad, leaving too much up to interpretation and not accommodating people who choose to occasionally shoot on their own property.

“I’m in favor of this, but I don’t think it’s going to fix your problem,” Elsbury said.

Ed Walter, attorney for the Uptons, also spoke at the meeting.

“I think 300 feet is definitely not enough,” Walter said. “…You can’t just go out and shoot across other people’s property.”

William Althouse spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying he did not want to be restricted in shooting on his property, which is surrounded by large lots and is far from any houses.

“It concerns me that we could end up losing the right to shoot on our own property,” Althouse said. “We would have trouble getting 300 feet from our own residence, but we would not have any problem being at least 300 feet from any other residence.”

Most other people who spoke at the meeting were opposed to the ordinance. Steve Reilly, a county resident who said he has spoken with the sheriff’s department about neighbors who he believes shoot irresponsibly, said the ordinance should be amended to prohibit shooting over other people’s property or over bodies of water. It should also include clear requirements for a proper backstop, he said.

“I’m pro-Second Amendment, I’m pro-gun rights, but you have to do it safely and you can’t endanger my family and other people here,” Reilly said.

Patricia Beaty, a customer of Custom Canine, said she considers herself a gun advocate, but would not shoot on her own land. Residential property, she said, is not the right place to fire a gun.

“We have gun ranges for this type of behavior,” Beaty said. “The loss of one human life is too high a price to pay when there’s other ways you can go shoot. I think at a minimum, it should be 1,000 feet (from any other residence).”

Rachel Matthews said she owns livestock and lives next to people who often shoot on their own property. While she has been able to reach a good agreement with her neighbors, she said, not everyone will be able to do that. An ordinance on shooting should include consideration of the size and shape of the property, for example.

“My suggestion is that if you want to pass an ordinance like this, you need to add more details, you need to add more safety measures,” she said.

The plan commission also heard from Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart. In his years at the department, Burkhart said, there have always been issues with shooting on personal property, and it can often be difficult to determine what exactly took place and whether ordinances were violated when the incident occurred.

“You can’t willy-nilly just shoot in the air, and sometimes we see that,” Burkhart said. “You see somebody just shoot in the air just to fire the weapon. I don’t know how to police that. I don’t know how to police the proper backstop. I don’t know how we determine what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to that.”

Burkhart said the ordinance could be made clearer to make it easier for law enforcement to determine exactly what is allowed.

Armstrong, the commissioners’ representative on the plan commission, said more research is also needed on what state laws allow.

After considering their options on making a recommendation to the commissioners, the plan commission members decided to address the matter at a later meeting after more research into gun safety and the ordinances of nearby counties.

“County code is probably the poorest way to enforce something that you want to get done,” Armstrong said. “There are state statutes that are probably much more effective in getting the results that you want.”

The plan commission will consider the issue again at its meeting on Sept. 22, set to take place at 6:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ court.
© 2020 Daily Reporter