Hancock County Sheriff's Deputy Jake Lewis sets up a target in front of the earthen backstop at the county range. A proper barrier to stop rounds is the most important thing for backyard target shooters to consider, Lewis said. The county is considering an ordinance that could make it easier for people to engage in target practice in their own yards. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
Hancock County Sheriff's Deputy Jake Lewis sets up a target in front of the earthen backstop at the county range. A proper barrier to stop rounds is the most important thing for backyard target shooters to consider, Lewis said. The county is considering an ordinance that could make it easier for people to engage in target practice in their own yards. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
HANCOCK COUNTY — The Hancock County Area Plan Commission is considering an ordinance change that would make it easier for residents to shoot guns on their own property, though officials are not yet sure what the change should look like. If adopted, a relaxation of rules would bring the county’s regulations more in line with existing, less restrictive rules in neighboring counties.

A survey of laws in nearby counties shows the county’s current ordinance is more restrictive than those in Henry, Hamilton or Shelby County, as well as in the unincorporated areas of Marion County.

The issue was debated at a recent meeting of the plan commission, where an initial version of the ordinance change was presented. That version would have removed a requirement for recreational shooting to only take place at least 300 feet away from any residence. Instead, those in unincorporated Hancock County would be allowed to shoot anywhere on their own property, as long as they are at least 300 feet from other homes.

A large number of residents attended to speak against the proposed change. Those opposed felt that relaxing the requirements would make the county less safe and could lead to accidental shootings.

After hearing the feedback, the plan commission decided to take time to research the issue further and compare the county’s rules with those in nearby counties. They will consider the issue again at their Sept. 22 meeting.

Mike Dale, executive director of the plan commission, told the Daily Reporter he believes the current ordinance is overly broad, but the proposed change also needs work. The county commissioners, he said, brought forward the original proposal and are taking the lead on revising it.

Brad Armstrong, the county commissioners’ representative on the plan commission, said the meeting had helped address concerns about the ordinance and had given the commissioners ideas for how it could be improved. He said he hopes to have a revised ordinance available at the September meeting.

Armstrong said when the ordinance was brought to the commissioners’ attention, he wanted to see it changed because it is difficult to enforce. Also, he said, many residents who are technically in violation of the order are not causing problems.

“I think there’s a significant amount of people that are in violation of that,” he said.

Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart says the ordinance can be hard to enforce because of the difficulty of determining whether shots were fired and where exactly the shooter was located.

In an email, Burkhart said his department responded to 76 shots-fired calls in 2019 and 69 so far in 2020. Those include calls in the county’s jurisdiction and any in other municipalities the department has assisted with.

Other nearby counties tend not to set restrictions on shooting near a person’s own home. Henry County, Sheriff Richard McCorkle said, does not have its own ordinance but follows Indiana state law. State laws forbid shooting within 300 feet of another person’s residence or across a roadway or tributary.

Hamilton County also does not have a specific ordinance governing recreational shooting.

Cities and towns within counties may have their own restrictions. In Indianapolis, discharging a firearm within the city limits for purposes like hunting or target shooting can be charged as a criminal offense. But in 2014, the City-County Council voted to allow residents in outlying parts of the county to continue recreational shooting.

As has been discussed in the debate over Hancock County’s ordinance, residents shooting in rural parts of Marion County must have a proper backstop, said Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department public information officer William Young.

Shelby County Sheriff Louie Koch said residents of the county are allowed to shoot anywhere on their own property, as long as they are firing in a safe direction.

“We do recommend that you have a backstop or a hillside or something to that effect,” Koch said.

What exactly makes for safe and responsible shooting is a big question. For Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Lewis, who provides firearms training at the county’s gun range for law enforcement, the most important thing for backyard target shooters to have is a proper backstop.

When constructing a backstop, he said, it’s important to choose a material that will stop a bullet’s flight. Some that are used, like fresh wood or automobile tires, won’t actually do that. He said a backstop’s size can vary depending on a shooter’s training and confidence with their weapon.

“The best backstop is always dirt,” Lewis said. “…Ricochets are real, and that’s something that can cause damage.”

If considering shooting in their backyard, Lewis said, people should consider their environment and their level of experience. If in doubt, they should seek more training.

“The biggest thing is being a responsible gun owner,” he said. “All guns can be lethal, even down to a small .22-caliber that you might shoot squirrels with.”

Accidental gunshots do occur, even in jurisdictions where backyard shooting is banned — like Greenfield, which forbids shooting and archery on residential property. Deputy Chief Brain Hartman of the Greenfield Police Department said GPD has responded to two accidental shootings in recent months: One occurred when a resident was showing a friend a gun, the other while a resident was cleaning a gun. Luckily, neither injury was life-threatening.

The most recent incident, in July, prompted GPD to share a reminder of gun safety tips on its Facebook page.

“It comes down to remembering the safety requirements of handling a gun,” Hartman said.

Hartman said the department receives occasional calls about shots fired in residential areas, but most turn out not to be illegal gunshots. Some callers hear fireworks, while others hear shots from the law enforcement range on a quiet day.

At Highsmith Guns, which hosts the county’s only public gun range, some gun owners had not heard of the ordinance change being considered. Jeff Kinder, who lives in Greenfield, said he thinks backyard shooting can be done responsibly.

“As long as it’s safe, I think it’s OK,” Kinder said. “I would take into consideration that there’s no kids next door and that you have a good backstop where the bullet won’t ricochet or whatever. If it’s open ground, I wouldn’t suggest it. But if they had a backstop, it would definitely work.”
© 2020 Daily Reporter