By Brett Yates
Spurred by complaints of dangerous target shooting in a residential area, the Mendon Select Board agreed unanimously in January that it would begin a process of drawing up and implementing a firearm discharge ordinance. But with summer almost in sight, the board — despite steady effort — doesn’t appear much closer to putting a new law on the books than it was before the town’s snow had melted.
Draft legislation, dated Feb. 23, still sits on the town’s website for public scrutiny, but the board no longer has much confidence that the final version — if there is a final version — will resemble the existing four-page document, which underwent legal review by an attorney at the Burlington firm Monaghan Safar Ducham before appearing online. The ordinance-in-waiting would prohibit gunfire at night and within 500 feet of a road, highway, hiking trail, or habitable structure, with exceptions for hunters, trappers, livestock farmers, law enforcement officers, and individuals engaged in self-defense.
When local gun owners saw it, many didn’t like what they read, and on March 15, a public hearing yielded three times more expressions of opposition than of approval, by the count of Constable Phil Douglas. After reviewing 25 additional letters and emails and an informal petition with 116 signatures, the Select Board sought guidance in meetings with Sergeant Doug Norton from the Vermont State Police, Rutland County Sheriff Dave Fox, and Game Warden Keith Gallant from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Dept.
All three affirmed that Mendon’s constable would bear the primary responsibility of responding to possible violations of the ordinance. Gallant’s comments, in particular, cast doubt on its enforceability by pointing out that offending shooters could easily claim the hunting exemption by asserting that their reported gunfire had targeted a chipmunk or a coyote.
This led Selectman Larry Courcelle to wonder, in a subsequent meeting, whether a street-by-street ordinance, with detailed proscriptions for each area, might fare better than a townwide ordinance with broad exemptions. He also floated scrapping the ordinance altogether. “From what I can see, it’s either all this detail, or you don’t move forward,” he said on April 26.
The board had modeled its draft ordinance on rules adopted by other towns in Vermont, but none of its members knew for sure whether any of those towns had ever attempted to enforce their legislation. Courcelle and Douglas (who first pitched the gunfire ordinance to the board in 2015) promised to seek more information, after which the board would render a final decision — yea or nay — on May 10.
But by May 10, their research hadn’t yet reached a conclusion. “I started calling all the towns in Vermont, and there’s 250 towns, so it’s been kind of interesting trying to get a hold of all of them,” Douglas recounted.
Of the 83 municipalities Douglas had called, thus far, “five had some kind of ordinance related to shooting in town,” he reported. “They’ve had ordinances from some like Colchester, which is very explicit, very detailed, down to some like Danville, which has a one-page ordinance that is very, very general.”
He added, “Nobody could seem to recall incidences of any enforcement.”
Courcelle’s outreach had focused on Rutland County, which has four towns with gunfire ordinances, the oldest of which, Wallingford’s, dates back to 1974. According to Courcelle, however, Wallingford’s long-time town clerk couldn’t remember a single reported violation.
Per state law, any new municipal ordinance passed by a select board must subsequently go to a townwide vote if 5% of the town’s registered voters sign a petition against it — an outcome that the Mendon Select Board sees as a serious possibility for its firearm discharge proposal. Yet Mendon’s neighbor, Killington, managed to pass a gunfire ordinance (as a result of targeting shooting near River Road) in 2015 without generating enough pushback to necessitate clearing this hurdle.
By Courcelle’s account, Killington’s Police Chief Whit Montgomery identified the legislation’s geographic limits as key to its success, confirming Courcelle’s own impression that “an ordinance needs to be mapped out with details for each area.”
In which neighborhoods should Mendon’s potential gunfire ordinance apply, then?
“Some of these places in Mendon should be surveyed. They may or may not want a firearm discharge ordinance,” Courcelle reasoned.
In Courcelle’s view, this project might require the work of a committee. Douglas agreed: “We should try to get a representative sample of the people who reside in Mendon, shooters and non-shooters both, and try to come up with a consensus on what would work.”
But Courcelle acknowledged that putting together a group “that does not have an agenda” won’t be easy.
In any case, Douglas wants to complete his survey of Vermont towns first.
“I’d like to keep going on this and hit all the towns and then do a summary and a report,” he said. But it’s not clear he’ll be able to finish the work before his upcoming two-week vacation.
“I don’t know where to go from here,” Board Chair Richard Wilcox admitted. “I don’t think we want to be pushing this off forever, but it sounds like we need a little more time to finish up.”
Elsewhere in Rutland County, on April 12, another proposal to limit gunfire within municipal boundaries — structured this time as a noise ordinance — came before the Brandon Select Board, which rejected it in a 4-1 vote.