Horry County Council’s latest move to crack down on reckless shooting appears headed toward the same fate as most of the panel’s past efforts to deal with the problem.
It’s going nowhere.
The council’s public safety committee on Tuesday voted against recommending a proposed ordinance that's designed to create gunfire-free zones in busy residential neighborhoods.
“We’re shirking our responsibility,” said councilman Gary Loftus, who cast the lone vote in support of the ordinance. “I don’t see any problem. We’re not taking anybody’s guns away. … I’m absolutely flabbergasted that we won’t give the people the opportunity to take action to protect themselves. I just don’t understand the mindset here.”
Council members worked on this policy a year ago, but the discussion fizzled out. Then the topic resurfaced in July after neighbors in a Burgess subdivision complained about bullets from a nearby gun range striking their homes. In that instance, county police said they could not bring charges under the county’s reckless shooting ordinance.
“The problem is who fired that shot?” Horry County Police Chief Joe Hill said. “If we’re on that property and there’s three or four people shooting, who’s the one that fired the shot? And if no one owns up to it, who do we prosecute? So that’s the challenge we have.”
Police asked the owner of the gun range to shoot in the opposite direction of the subdivision, but the problem continued, leading to the police working with the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office to attempt to close the range through a nuisance action.
“Basically, we’re stacking paper on the owner of that property,” Hill said.
The debate over regulating gunfire in the unincorporated areas of Horry has continued for nearly a decade. As more neighborhoods were built, complaints about gunfire near homes became common for some council members, particularly in growing areas such as Carolina Forest, Little River and Burgess.
Most Grand Strand municipalities don’t allow target shooting in city limits, but the only regulation of that activity in the county is a reckless shooting ordinance that council members approved in 2017.
Some councilmen maintain that policy is difficult to enforce. Since the reckless shooting ordinance was passed, about a dozen charges have been filed.
Last year, the county received more than 1,100 complaints about possible gunfire. Nearly 430 of those came from subdivisions.
The ordinance that county staff recently developed sought to balance rural and suburban interests by allowing high-density areas to have gunfire-free zones while not forcing landowners in the undeveloped parts of the county to change their way of life.
Under the county’s proposal, any gunfire-free zones would have to be approved by a county council resolution. The zones could be requested by that district's council member or by residents via a petition that includes more than 50% of the registered voters in the proposed zone.
To qualify for the designation, a zone must fall in an “urban area” as defined by the latest U.S. Census or meet the county’s definition of a major residential subdivision (at least 11 lots). The zone would also cover the areas within 300 feet of such a subdivision.
The draft ordinance includes exceptions for someone protecting people or property, law enforcement, a county-sponsored or permitted special event, and ceremonies that use blank ammunition. It also has exceptions for hunting on tracts five acres and larger and for gun clubs and shooting ranges that have been operating for at least five years.
Along with those regulations, the ordinance would outlaw firing a gun on county-owned property and it includes language specifically requested by county police: any property owner who allows someone to violate the ordinance on his or her land could be charged.
But on Tuesday, some leaders questioned the need for the policy while others outright blasted it.
“We don’t need a law for every little situation,” Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said. “Across the board, I’m against any new laws for new situations. … Every time you see a law with somebody’s name on it, at the time it sounds like a good idea. A year or two years later, nobody knows how to enforce it.”
Councilman Al Allen was the most vocal critic, blaming the ordinance on “foreigners” — i.e. transplants to Horry County — not knowing about "Southern heritage and culture.” He said these people come from urban areas where they associate gunfire with crime and don’t grasp the concept of recreational shooting.
“Some of them just don’t get it,” he said. “They don’t understand it. Just because we talk slow does not mean we think slow.”
If approved, violations of the ordinance would be misdemeanors punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in jail for first and second convictions. A third conviction within one year of the first offense would carry a mandatory fine of $500 and 30 days behind bars.
A former law enforcement officer, Allen pointed out that police cannot make an arrest on a misdemeanor charge unless it happens in an officer's presence. Absent that, cases and evidence are presented to a magistrate.
“We just can’t pass an ordinance and throw it out there and say, ‘Go enforce this,’” he said. “That’s unfair to our law enforcement and it is handicapping them.”
Despite what police have said about the Burgess case, Allen maintains there are existing laws in place that deal with the situation. He also fears the proposed ordinance would impact rural Horry as growth shifts there.
“It will affect the people of western Horry County negatively,” he said.
Loftus disputed that point. He said the policy is aimed at specific areas.
“The people are tired of it,” he said. “And it would only affect those communities. It won’t affect Loris. It won’t affect Aynor. It won’t affect anywhere else.”
The ordinance will go to county council for consideration, possibly as early as next week, but without a recommendation for approval.