EATON TWP. — Numerous homes recently have been peppered with bullets, leaving residents in fear and seeking solutions before someone gets hurt or killed.
But township residents face an uphill battle because unlike cities, townships have no authority to regulate shooting on private property. State law also is vague when it comes to such issues.
State law regulates shooting ranges and recommends ranges adhere to National Rifle Association safety standards, but when it comes to a homeowner shooting on private property, it’s largely a free-for-all.
Townships cannot set zoning regulations allowing shooting only on certain-sized property, requiring backstops or specifying what type of weapons can be shot on someone’s private property.
This has led to many frustrated Eaton Township residents, some of whom also happen to be gun owners, looking for answers.
Part of the draw of living in a township is being free from confining government regulation, residents said, but they also want to be able to mow their lawns or play with their children and grandchildren without stray bullets coming their way.
Many of the recent complaints involve homes on Durkee Road, and residents recently voiced concerns to their township trustees.
Tom and Roseanne Edwards said they wish the township could set up more zoning ordinances in regards to shooting. Tom Edwards said he’s concerned for the safety of his family and his neighbors.
“I can’t tell you the emotions that went through me when I heard the bullets entering my home,” he said. “I was just steps away from it. I can’t stop thinking about the destruction it could have caused my whole family.”
Roseanne Edwards said her husband went to the location where the shots came from and the people brushed off the incident.
“They showed no concern about their reckless actions,” she said. “One said, ‘We have the right to shoot.’ That’s it. We have the right to shoot. Not that we have the right to shoot in a safe manner. We just have the right to shoot. Well I have the right to be safe on my property and safe in my own home.”
Lorain County Sheriff Capt. Rick Thomas said when it comes to property damage caused by bullets, deputies must first prove the origin of the gunfire.
State statutes involve culpable mental states, Thomas said, and instead of recklessly or negligently doing something, the law deals with whether someone knowingly committed an act.
With property damage from bullets, a person could conceivably receive misdemeanor charges of improperly discharging a firearm into a habitation or school safety zone, although a person must knowingly commit such an act.
“You have to prove the element that they knew what they were doing,” Thomas said.
Criminal damaging or endangering is another possible charge, Thomas said, although these charges don’t specifically mention gunfire.
When it comes to bodily harm from a stray bullet, Thomas said, a person could be charged with misdemeanor negligent assault, although you have to be able to prove they were reckless.
“You can see the difficulty we run into with this,” he said.
After the Edwards incident, the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office made two arrests. A police report was requested by The Chronicle-Telegram but has not been received.
Tom Edwards said even though arrests were made, laws need teeth to help prevent such problems and to help deputies enforce the laws rather than trying to deal with damage after the fact.
“This does not end the reckless actions of others who shoot without thinking about the safety of others,” Edwards said. “I really think due to the growing population of townships, there’s a need for zoning restrictions.”
Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Gerald Innes said township residents could try to gather petitions to place a referendum on the ballot allowing townships to set their own zoning regulations when it comes to shooting.
However, such attempts have been made in the past, and it usually involves a lengthy legal battle and debate over the constitutionality of such regulations, he said. Courts will tend to rule on the side of constitutional gun rights over township zoning rights or home rule, he said.
“You’ve got to be honest, the opposition will be immense,” he said. “There’s really not a whole lot townships can do regarding shooting.”
But Eaton Township residents said it’s time to show the state and the gun lobbyists that one can be both pro-gun and common sense when it comes to certain regulations.
Resident Elizabeth Rattay said the neighbors on both sides of her home, including the Edwards, have been hit. Her other neighbor, whom declined to be identified, had their pool hit with a large round bigger than the size of a dime.
Rattay, who owns guns, said she isn’t against allowing people to shoot. Guns are a part of rural life, she said, but common sense and safety precautions should be used.
“It has to stop,” she said. “We’re unsafe in our yard and that’s insanity. If there aren’t rules, let’s make some. If we have to take it all the way to the state, I’m willing to do that.”
Roger Gabel said he has no idea where the bullets are coming from, but he said this is an issue that needs to be addressed. He said when he hears gunfire, which he often does, he’ll head inside his house.
But what about the times he’s mowing his lawn and can’t hear the gunfire?
“I don’t know what the deal is, but I’m catching fire,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I can’t have it coming across my yard like that or into my house. I’m sure it’s an accident, but someone needs to find out what’s going on and who’s doing it.”
Gabel and other residents said it feels like this a situation that is escalating and tempting them to be vigilantes since the law is not on their side. If people don’t have enough land to shoot, or know how to properly shoot their weapons, they should find a shooting range, he said.
But those refusing to acknowledge the problem or get educated on firearms leave people like Gabel feeling like they are being backed into a corner.
“It’s going to come to the point where I’m going to return fire if somebody doesn’t do something,” he said. “I don’t want it to get to that point, but I feel threatened and it’s got to stop. I know you can shoot guns in the township, but you can’t shoot guns across other people’s property.”