Horry County Council members on Tuesday got their first look at an ordinance aimed at cracking down on reckless shooting in the suburbs.
The proposal is designed to target the more densely populated areas of the county and create gunfire-free zones in those neighborhoods.
“We aren’t stomping on anybody’s Second Amendment rights by any stretch of the imagination at all,” councilman Gary Loftus said. “The Second Amendment does not allow a person to shoot a bullet into another person’s house.”
Council members worked on this policy a year ago, but the discussions never went anywhere. Then the topic resurfaced last month 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. They asked the owner of the range to shoot in the opposite direction of the subdivision.
The owner of the gun range, George Ferrell, was later arrested and charged with harassing a woman who complained about the shooting, according to public records. Last week, the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office requested that the court declare Ferrell’s range a public nuisance.
But 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 those in growing areas such as Carolina Forest, Little River and Burgess.
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, just 19 cases have been opened, according to county police figures. Of those investigations, only 12 have resulted in charges.
Last year, the county received more than 1,100 complaints about possible gunfire. Nearly 430 of those came from subdivisions.
The ordinance that council members are now considering seeks 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.
“Obviously, Horry County is a diverse county,” county attorney Arrigo Carotti said. “It’s not homogeneous like a municipality would be, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Under the county’s proposal, any gunfire-free zones would 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 does include exceptions for someone protecting people or property, law enforcement, a county-sponsored or permitted special event, and ceremonies that use blank ammunition.
The policy 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. However, there are additional regulations for clubs and ranges about where the shooting at these facilities can take place and the type of ammunition that can be used.
“People are not going to be able to fire off light anti-tank weapons in their shooting range,” Carotti said.
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.
“When we have these guns going off, hitting homes, and [police] have to go investigate and issue a citation or take whatever appropriate action, they can’t find where the bullet came from,” Carotti said. “No one’s fired that one. It just fell from the sky. Well, this charges the landowner … if they can’t control what happens on their property.”
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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.
Council members expressed mixed reactions to the proposal.
“There are laws in place,” councilman Al Allen said. “We don’t need to keep stacking up and stacking up and chipping away. Because good, honest folks don’t need new laws. … I just think it’s a Pandora’s box.”
Allen worries about the county losing legal challenges to the ordinance and local police being overburdened by enforcing a detailed new policy. He also said this ordinance would not have prevented the situation in Burgess.
“One hundred new ordinances wouldn’t have stopped this idiot — and that’s what he is, an idiot — from doing what he was doing,” he said. “And yes, something had to be done. Our county police and our solicitor’s office intervened and they are doing what needs to be done. Any other ordinance would not have changed this.”
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Loftus, however, pressed Allen about the urgency of the situation.
“When was the last time you had bullet holes in your house?” he asked.
In the Burgess case, Loftus said police did all they could and they still couldn’t make a case for reckless shooting.
“Does this [ordinance] hurt you in any way, shape or form?” Loftus asked Allen.
“It does,” Allen replied. “It chips away at our Second Amendment rights.”
During the discussion, 15th Circuit Chief Deputy Solicitor Scott Hixson suggested that the council strive for clarity in any new shooting ordinance.
“One of the biggest benefits that we can do to help law enforcement out is to make whatever ordinance or anything that’s passed very clear, not up for interpretation on what it means,” he said. “So when … somebody’s out there, they know what reckless or intentional means.”
For example, he said reckless conduct may describe target shooting without a berm or firing within 25 feet of a house.
Loftus stressed that the new ordinance must address situations like the one in Burgess. He pointed out that similar complaints have come from Carolina Forest and Little River in recent years.
“One bullet hole in a house is an accident,” he said. “Several bullet holes every other week is not an accident. So how do we craft an ordinance that says that?”
The committee ultimately decided to discuss the ordinance with the solicitor’s office and the police department further and revisit the policy with the suggestions from those public safety officials.
“We all realize we cannot write an ordinance to fix stupid,” councilman Danny Hardee said, acknowledging that he has some concerns about the ordinance but understands the urgency of the matter. “We don’t need to sit here until somebody gets killed and then start working on it.”