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Gun law change nullifies local ordinances

Sunday, July 10, 2011

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

An amendment to the state pneumatic gun law that went into effect July 1 overrides ordinances in Henry County and Martinsville.

The amendment bars any state locality "from adopting an ordinance that prohibits the shooting of pneumatic guns on private property, with permission of the owner of the property, if reasonable care is taken to prevent a projectile from crossing the bounds of the property." The bill also invalidates any local ordinances that conflict with it.

That is according to a summary of SB 757, which was introduced by state Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Ridgeway.

According to the new law, ""˜Pneumatic gun' means any implement, designed as a gun, that will expel a BB or a pellet by action of pneumatic pressure. "˜Pneumatic gun' includes a paintball gun that expels by action of pneumatic pressure plastic balls filled with paint for the purpose of marking the point of impact."�

Henry County Attorney George Lyle has said the county's ordinance prohibited discharging pneumatic guns in platted and developed subdivisions. The new state amendment "would nullify the county ordinance as far as I can see it," he said.

Before Reynolds introduced the bill, he forwarded it to the Henry County government, Lyle said, adding that he was not aware that any of the supervisors opposed it.

Lyle said because Henry County is largely rural, he did not foresee a problem with the state amendment.

However, "a BB gun can be dangerous like any other firearm," he said, adding he was aware of one case this year in which a small child was blinded in one eye as a result of being shot with a BB by another child.

"People need to exercise caution" when using such weapons, Lyle said.

Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry agreed that the new amendment likely will not be a problem locally.

But, Perry added, "We hope than anyone who shoots any weapon, either a projectile that is propelled by powder, pneumatic or a bow of any kind, that they give due regard to safety and take into consideration any factors of their surroundings and neighbors."�

The potential for injury from pneumatic weapons is not as great as weapons that use powder, the sheriff said.

"We hope people use common sense, always shooting into a safe backstop," and if that is done, there should be minimal chance of injury, Perry said.

Martinsville City Attorney Eric Monday has said he thought the new amendment would invalidate a city ordinance - as it pertains to private property - that bans shooting air guns anywhere in the city.

"I don't know if it's going to have much impact" locally, he said of the amendment.

Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers said there have been some acts of vandalism in which people fired pneumatic guns into buildings, windows and homes. "If we could have determined who it was, we would have prosecuted," he said.

"We'll just have to wait and see," he said when asked what impact he thinks the amendment will have. "Hopefully the wrong people won't use them (pneumatic guns) and commit acts of vandalism."�

Rogers said he hopes parents will supervise and give guidance to their children who use pneumatic guns.

"If a person who gets shot is not wearing protective gear, they (the pneumatic guns) have potential to inflict serious injury," Rogers said.

At least one city resident, Frances Fleming of Northwood Court, is concerned about the safety of families living near a wooded area bounded by Oneida Street and Stultz Road because of the law change. She said people shoot BBs and arrows from pneumatic weapons in the woods, and she is afraid the BBs and arrows might go out of the woods and hurt someone in the neighborhood. She said deer have been killed in the woods.

She is not alone in her concern. Roanoke City Council has approved a resolution expressing "extreme displeasure" with the amendment and asking the General Assembly to repeal it, according to council documents.

The resolution says, among other things, that discharging "air-guns and similar implements" has been barred in that city since at least 1909 due to safety concerns in light of Roanoke's high population density and small size of many lots.

" ... Pneumatic guns include rifles and pistols that fire .22 caliber pellets - the same caliber as the smallest rifle caliber, and they reportedly have killing power at close range and the ability to kill small animals at 50 yards," its resolution states.

Blacksburg Town Attorney Larry Spencer said the town council adopted an ordinance June 14 making changes to the town code to comply with the state amendment, effective July 1. The change prohibits discharging pneumatic guns in the town.

"I don't think any of them were particularly happy about it," Spencer said. One of the main concerns was safety. "We have a lot of smaller lots and dense area," Spencer said.

Also, council members didn't like that the new amendment is "kind of a one-size-fits-all solution," Spencer said. He added that it might be OK in a jurisdiction like Montgomery County, which surrounds Blacksburg and has larger lots and more land mass.

Spencer said the council decided to consider requesting repeal of the amendment this fall as one of council's state legislative priorities, he said.

Ted McCormack, director of governmental affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), said in an email: "Because of the wide-ranging viewpoints among VACo members having to do with the subject, the association did not take an official position on the legislation other than to express our overall concern that the bill superseded local authority and replaced it with a statewide mandate. VACo has a general position against the usurpation of local authority by the state in any legislative action."�

However, McCormack stated that he did an article for VACo members when the bill was being considered to point out that "in high-density areas of a county, such as townhouse subdivisions and many older neighborhoods, allowing what has the same power as a small caliber rifle may be problematic.

"The only county of which I am aware that has expressed concern over the new law is Fairfax County, and that was from news reports in the Washington Post," he added.

An official of the Virginia Municipal League could not be reached Friday, but McCormack stated in his email that the VML "strongly opposed the bill when it was before the committees."�

Reynolds said Friday that he recalls VML representatives opposing the bill when it was before committees, but "I don't believe any locality came to the General Assembly to speak against the bill."

He said it's "unfortunate" that localities have waited until the bill was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor before voicing objections to it. He said the ideal time to do that is when the General Assembly is considering a bill.

He said localities have the right to raise concerns and seek repeal of the legislation when the General Assembly meets early in 2012.

"If these consequences (that some localities are predicting) happen, I think you'll see quick repeal," Reynolds said. But, he added, he doesn't foresee those consequences happening.

"A lot of times when people cry wolf" situations turn out not to be as serious as they feared, he added.

 

 
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