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Taking Aim At Rifle Hunting

BUCKINGHAM – During the September 10 meeting of the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors, a hearing to gather input on public sentiment regarding the possibility of changing the county's firearm ordinance prompted an almost hour-long discourse on the subject.

At issue is a movement to include rifle hunting from the ground in the county's firearms ordinance that currently only authorizes rifle hunting from a stand elevated ten feet above the ground.

After the hearing, the board, with a motion by Supervisor Bill Talbert, formed a committee to work on drafting an ordinance for rifle hunting.

Appointees to the committee include the county attorney, county administrator, and the assistant county administrator along with citizen representatives Allen Cox, Dave Martin, Jr., Donald Shumaker, Elaine Pettoni, and Slim Christian, contingent upon their agreement to serve.

Buckingham's current firearms ordinance was revised on April 19, 2010, to accommodate the inclusion of a bear season in the county. At that time, supervisors conducted a public hearing but no comments were offered.

Subsequently, the current ordinance states, in part, “(1) It shall be unlawful to hunt with a rifle larger than .22 caliber rimfire, except any centerfire rifle of a large caliber may be used to hunt from a stand elevated at least 10 feet from the ground. It shall be unlawful to have a loaded centerfire rifle of any caliber .23 or larger except while hunting from a stand elevated ten feet above the ground.”

Section two states, “That muzzle loading gun hunting be permitted within the jurisdictional boundaries of Buckingham County in accordance with all laws, rules, and regulations of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries…”

The hearing began with a brief presentation by Sergeant James Slaughter and Officer Ryan Gibson, with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Sgt. Slaughter, who supervising Buckingham, Cumberland, Amelia, Nottoway, and Prince Edward, advised that DGIF does not have a position on whether the county should include rifle hunting from the ground.

Providing statistics from the past ten years of hunting accidents that occurred in Buckingham, Gibson said there were nine of them-one with a rifle, one with a muzzleloader, and the rest were shotgun incidents.

Explaining that the accident with the rifle resulted in the death of the victim, Gibson offered, “It did not occur, technically, while hunting.”

At that point, Supervisor Cassandra Stish asked Gibson how, from an enforcement standpoint, DGIF interpreted the county's ordinance.

“From an enforcement standpoint, it's interpreted as anybody who is carrying a firearm or a rifle that is a .23 caliber or higher, if they are walking to or from the stand, if the rifle is loaded at that time, they are in violation of the law as far as the ordinance reads,” responded the officer.

Vice Chairman Danny Allen, sharing that he would like to see hunters not have to get up in a tree stand, asked how many surrounding counties allow hunting from the ground.

Gibson replied that Buckingham was the only one in the district that did not.

When Supervisor Donnie Bryan questioned how many rifle accidents have occurred in the counties that allow rifle hunting, Slaughter said he could get the information and present those statistics at a later date.

Allen Cox, who Supervisor Talbert wanted to be included as a presenter at the hearing, shared that he has 32 years with the Virginia State Police including experience on its tactical unit and as a firearms instructor.

Offering statistics he compiled from DGIF, Cox stated that there were 11 tree stand accidents in the state last year. Although none were fatal, he said injuries included broken femurs, multiple leg fractures, rib fractures, punctured lungs, several broken backs and multiple spinal fractures and facial fractures.

He added that last year there were two incidents involving rifles in the state-one was fatal.

“Tree stands themselves are dangerous,” stated Cox. “A lot of incidents that occur with a fire arm, and I don't know how to be politically correct, they are just stupid.”

Providing a bit of history on the county's current ordinance, Cox, reiterating the number of serious injuries resulting from tree stand usage, said, “We started with tree stands. It's time to do it from the ground.”

Bringing up another issue, Donald Shumaker shared that the ordinance as currently written makes it illegal to hunt coyotes and groundhogs with a .22 caliber gun. He questioned when and how the wording was changed from a .22 caliber to a .22 caliber rimfire.

“If the hunting with any caliber rifle from the ground passes, then it's no need to correct that error because that would make all rifles legal on the ground,” stated Shumaker. “But, if for some reason the law does not pass for rifles on the ground then we have to readdress that .22 caliber versus .22 caliber rimfire law.”

Sammy Smith, who raises registered Angus cattle, expressed similar concerns about the county's current firearms ordinance as it pertains to killing coyotes. He shared, “I have a hard time killing coyotes from 150 yards with a BB gun.”

The next speaker, Dave Martin, stated that he supported lifting the restrictions on hunting from the ground.

Regarding statistics on the safety aspect, Martin shared an article written by Sergeant Dave Dodson that was published in the Tidewater News. He said that Dodson did a survey or trend analysis of the last five years and several of the accidents he wrote about included tree stand falls, ATV rollovers, and mishandling of firearms.

Martin said Dodson also did an analysis on two-party accidents, hunter A shooting hunter B. In the five-year trend study, there were 60 incidences involving hunter-on-hunter mishaps. Of those, 13 were attributed to rifles and the remaining 47 involved shotguns, he offered.

“Of those 60 incidences, there were five fatalities that were attributed to the use of shotguns and only three with rifles,” stated Martin, drawing from Dodson's article.

He also echoed the concerns about the current ordinance in conjunction with killing coyotes. “We need to take a look at that and take action to get that repealed,” said Martin.

Noting that he would be for the magazine restriction if that is what it took to get rifle hunting from the ground, Martin offered, “But, keep this in the back of your mind-there are 95 counties in the State of Virginia and we are the only one with a centerfire rifle restriction on a magazine.”

Martin concluded, “Like Mr. Shumaker said, I think that the best thing that we are going to find is that if we open up and have the unrestricted hunting from the ground with rifle, we are going to have a lot of our problems disappear. Let's not be the only county around that restricts it.”

When Supervisor Stish asked the county attorney if he had anything to add regarding the interpretation of the ordinance, E. M. Wright replied, “It is a discussion of policy.” He explained that the language for the current ordinance came from the state's model ordinance.

Wright, addressing the board, offered, “The policy question is what kind of rifle hunting do you want and what type of restrictions do you want.”

Stish shared that she came to the meeting with the idea that the board would form a committee of citizens representing different points of views on rifle hunting to help create the language for the ordinance.

Noting that any changes would have to be made by the county and then submitted to DGIF for inclusion for next year's season, Stish explained that they had the time and opportunity to “craft something that's not herky-jerky” but would address everything appropriately. She asked for the board's support in setting up a committee to work on the ordinance.

Acknowledging that the game hunting regulations for this season could not be changed at this point, Talbert questioned if there was anything the board could do about authorizing use of a larger caliber rifle for killing coyotes.

As the discussion continued Smith stated, “There is one exception.” He offered that individuals could apply for a kill permit and would be able to use any caliber in conjunction with that permit.

Sgt. Slaughter explained that a kill permit is obtained through a DGIF officer after that officer visits the property and assesses the damages. He added that the county ordinance would be taken into consideration.

“However, if it is a necessary situation, because there is a loss of revenue, we would consider it under the kill permit,” explained Slaughter. He added that because the kill permit is not classified as a hunt, it does not fall under the same regulations as hunting.

Stish asked Slaughter if there was any appeal that the county could make to DGIF to clarify that the firearms ordinance was not meant to include hunting coyotes and similar animals.

Slaughter offered that a temporary solution to address the coyote issue might be for the board to draft a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, with DGIF.

As the discussion ebbed and prior to the vote to form the committee to work on drafting an ordinance for rifle hunting, supervisors offered names of those they would like to see on the committee.

Before the board of supervisors can adopt a proposed ordinance or any revisions to a current ordinance, a duly advertised public hearing is required

In a September 25 update, County Administrator Rebecca Carter shared that the committee has met and in conjunction with working on the ordinance, it has drafted a MOU with DGIF.

As proposed, the MOU would clarify that the intent of the current firearms ordinance is not to restrict killing coyotes, groundhogs and other small game with .22 caliber rimfire or .22 caliber centerfire rifles.

Carter explained that the MOU is being reviewed by the county attorney and should be ready for submission to the board of supervisors for its consideration at the October 9 meeting.