Gun rules get more colorful

Citizens group loosens restrictions in new proposal

By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

A colorful sketch of the Town of Colchester resides in police headquarters depicting a new consensus about how the town should regulate gun use. Unlike the existing firearms restriction map, it is not just a split between red restricted zones and white unrestricted zones. The new map adds yellows and blues to the mix, indicating a more nuanced conclusion about where people in town can shoot which types of guns.

The map, along with a rewriting of the town’s firearms ordinance, is being created by a group of citizens under the direction Sgt. Jeffrey Bean. Town Manager Dawn Francis ordered the ordinance review last year after the town had fielded citizen complaints about the safety of the existing regulations.

Last July, the citizens group put forward a new map of restricted areas, including for the first time the rural neighborhoods surrounding Route 2 on the northwestern side of town. Only shotgun discharges would be permitted in those areas. In the unrestricted areas, firing would remain unregulated by the town.

Residents of northwestern Colchester spoke out against the proposal and participated in a redrawing of the map over a series of winter meetings with Sgt. Bean. They succeeded in removing the restriction from their neighborhood in a new proposal to be presented to the Colchester Selectboard and helped tighten the language in the ordinance to include definitions of things like “shotgun,” “rifle,” “muzzle-loader” and “buckshot.”

Gun-use advocates who participated in the meetings also made it easier for people to set up target-practice ranges on their property. Firing ranges are allowed as an exception within restricted zones, and gun advocates removed a requirement that the chief of police approve a range before use.

“There is nothing in place for the chief to use as guidelines,” Bean explained.

Citizen Mickey Palmer cautioned that unregulated backyard ranges have been the source of mishaps in Vermont, citing a death in 2008 when a stray bullet from a makeshift range ricocheted through a window and killed an Essex man in his home. A Colchester resident pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the case.

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable to have a range certified,” said Palmer.

The citizens group determined that the regulation of shooting ranges should be taken up through the town’s zoning regulations. Planning Commission chairwoman Pam Loranger said the Planning and Zoning Department has shooting range regulation on its long-term radar.

Bean has been working to digitize the new map so it is ready for public consumption and selectboard consideration. The addition of yellow on the map indicates government lands whose gun regulations the town’s would defer to. This includes Winooski Valley Parks District land, where shooting is prohibited, and Niquette Bay State Park on the north shore of Malletts Bay, where shooting is allowed during certain hunting seasons and restricted at other times of the year.

The addition of a blue zone indicates an area to the southeast of Severance Corners where use of shotguns, handguns and muzzle-loaders would be allowed.

According to Bean, the northwestern section of town was removed from restriction in acknowledgement of the area’s geography. Although it is zoned as residential, with an allowance of one house per acre, the reality of the area is that houses are separated by more than 10 acres in most cases. The original thought last year was to restrict all areas zoned residential, but it was determined that area did not warrant tightened controls, Bean said.

“Zoning isn’t an accurate way of doing it,” he said.

In the restricted zones that remain, exceptions for backyard ranges, defense of land or property from wild animals, and gun use by on-duty police officers are excepted.