A crowd of citizens numbering nearly 60 by some estimations turned out August 2, forcing the Legislative Council’s Ordinance Committee to request a quick switch of meeting rooms with the Planning & Zoning Commission. The council committee was set to meet in a small conference room at Newtown Municipal Center, but P&Z commissioners were willing to trade locations in view of the overwhelming turnout, according to Council Vice Chair and Ordinance Committee Chair Mary Ann Jacob.
Reached following the meeting, Ms Jacob said the response may have been so significant because gun enthusiasts and sportsmen in town believed the committee would be voting to enact the proposed ordinance, instead of just reviewing and possibly recommending it be moved to the full council for discussion and possible action.
“The group that turned out was equal in size and energy to any that I’ve seen at a town budget meeting,” Ms Jacob said of the group, which also produced 13 residents who spoke to the committee during the two opportunities for public comment.
“All but one spoke about their concerns about the restrictions, and their Second Amendment rights,” she said, referring to the constitutional provision permitting Americans to keep and bear arms.
Ms Jacob said some of the comments led her to believe that many who opposed the ordinance, or a number of its provisions, thought a letter supporting the ordinance was the impetus for the local Police Commission to draft language that was then presented to the council committee.
“But that letter was generated by the supporter after they heard about the proposed ordinance; the ordinance wasn’t drafted as a result of the letter,” Ms Jacob explained.
During the meeting, Ms Jacob said both Police Chief Michael Kehoe and Police Commission Chairman Paul Mangiafico articulated their concerns, which prompted some of the specific language in the proposal. Much of the boilerplate language in the measure is patterned after a similar approved ordinance in Wilton.
“I think we were hearing from the chief and Paul that there are safety concerns, and that in some cases the use of firearms on private property is going on day and night,” Ms Jacob said. “But we’re not acting to curtail anyone’s constitutional rights. We’re just, as Chief Kehoe explained, considering whether to give the local police another tool in the toolbox so they can better protect the public’s safety.”
‘Unsafe And Inappropriate’
Ms Jacob said the chief noted one instance where an individual was shooting at propane tanks so the shooter could watch them detonate.
“Today, without any ordinance in place, that activity would be deemed unsafe and inappropriate, but it is not illegal,” Ms Jacob said.
Chief Kehoe previously told The Bee that he has learned that certain individuals in town may not only be in possession of military-grade weapons, but explosives as well.
“And they are using those military-grade weapons to detonate the explosives. Not a smart move,” the chief said.
Ms Jacob acknowledged that it is the police department’s job to keep the town safe, and that enacting the ordinance as proposed would not change the police department’s response protocol when there is a complaint. It would simply give responding officers greater means to act if they witness something of concern upon responding.
Ms Jacob said that the committee will further examine local data, and that committee members Joe Girgasky and Phil Carroll will work to produce the number of firearms complaints in recent years to define whether “a lot of those complaints are coming from the same party or parties, or if there are many widespread complaints throughout the town.”
“Some people were said to be concerned about firearms noise happening day and night,” she said. “But once the police are dispatched, the noise often stops.”
Ms Jacob said that even the noise being generated from firearms discharge may not rise to the level of a violation under the town’s existing noise ordinance. She also admitted that the conditions of the Wilton ordinance were “very restrictive,” and that if it is recommended at all, the Newtown version will be less restrictive.
“I hope people realize that if it is recommended, this ordinance is not a means to control behavior, it just gives our police department better tools to deal with it,” Ms Jacob said.
Enthusiast Speaks Out
Among the attendees at the ordinance meeting was Dick Giannettino, who, along with his two sons, owns and operates the Shooters gun shop and indoor range in New Milford. Mr Giannettino is also a longtime officer with the Newtown-based Fairfield County Fish & Game Protective Association, one of the oldest shooting and game clubs in the state.
“This club has been around for 105 years and we’ve never had an accident, and never had a safety-related complaint,” he told The Bee following the meeting. “I believe some of the complaints that generated this ordinance are unsubstantiated, or that those complaining are concerned about the noise.”
But Mr Giannettino said his major concern was the ordinance vesting sole authority in the police chief or his designee to deem if a shooting range is safe or not.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the Newtown chiefs going back many years, but if you get an antigun chief in there some day, it all can change,” he said. “To give that level of discretion to one individual is not right.”
The gun shop owner said that over time, the club has gone to great lengths to be good neighbors as suburban developments have brought residential homes closer to the century-old gun club.
“We’ve taken steps to help abate the noise by planting sound-buffering foliage,” he said.
Mr Giannettino also takes issue with the proposed ordinance, because it would curtail the amount of time individuals could discharge firearms on their property.
“I know a lot of this is tied to people shooting on their private property, but at the club we maintain a 364-day-a-year 8 am to dusk policy,” he said. “On the other hand, I thought the meeting was very fair and handled well. Anyone who desired got a chance to speak their mind, and we will continue to closely monitor this ordinance as it progresses through the system.”
The local gun enthusiast said that he and other opponents of the action were able to mobilize close to 60 people to the committee meeting with just two days notice last week. But he expects to see double that number or more when the committee revisits the ordinance on September 12, the next scheduled meeting date.
Councilman Joe Girgasky said the police commission chairman and chief clearly explained that miscellaneous target shooting complaints led to the proposed modification.
“We’ve asked the chief for details so the committee may continue to review for necessity and efficacy,” Mr Girgasky said. “The committee is also reviewing what steps neighboring towns may or may not have taken regarding the same subject.”