Danger from target shooters’ stray bullets near homes in Stilwell and Spring Hill has been such a persistent problem this year that Johnson County commissioners were willing to touch the “third rail” of politics Thursday.
The commission, after hearing a second round of horror stories from residents about bullets hitting their homes, approved a resolution to place a higher priority on stray bullet complaints as they come into the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office. In addition, Sheriff Calvin Hayden was charged with coming up with recommendations for changes in state law that would address the problem of target shooting in populated areas where the suburbs meet the countryside.
County planners also were tasked with drawing up some rules for safe setup of private shooting ranges. The commission declined to ask for new codes, though, in favor of “guidance.”
Commissioner Steve Klika proposed the specifics to a general amendment promoting gun safety. “I’ve not asked anywhere down the line that anyone have their guns taken away from them or (not) be able to shoot them,” he said, adding that law enforcement should more aggressively pursue the stray bullet cases. “I want to see ramifications if people are going to be stupid.”
Troubles in the area have continued since neighbors descended upon the commission in March to demand action on what they described as a terrifying amount of gunfire from target shooters. In the days before that meeting, a stray bullet pierced a car on U.S. Highway 169 near 199th Street, narrowly missing an 11-year-old girl returning home from soccer.
Target practice with AK 47 and AR 15 firearms
On Thursday, Matt Keys of Stilwell described his day May 31, when, after listening to three-and-a-half hours of gunfire coming from an adjacent field, he discovered four bullets had struck his home in an area often used by his children.
The shooters were determined to have been firing at a brush pile with an AK 47 and AR 15 only a third of a mile from his home, and a little over a mile and a half from Stilwell Elementary School, Keys said.
“After three months of patiently waiting, the sheriff has indicated that essentially no charges will be filed,” he said. “That means that the land owner, gun owners and all four shooters will walk away completely off the hook with full access to both firearms used to commit this offense against my family.”
Those were far from isolated cases. According to others who came to speak at the commission meeting, the fear of stray bullets is a fact of life in the area. Deb Slater described going into her yard and hearing bullets go into the surrounding trees, causing birds to fly up. And Pat McRoberts of Stilwell, said loud booms from nearby shooting are not uncommon.”
“The way we’re dealing with the situation in Stilwell right now, it’s like playing Russian roulette when you send your kids out or you’re outside mowing or you’re sitting on your deck. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
The number of stray bullet complaints this year has been “unheard of, normally,” Hayden said, speculating that more people are buying guns lately due to social unrest. But also contributing to the conflicts is the fast growth of the suburban fringe, where residential subdivisions of families home more often during the pandemic butt up against neighbors employing their Second Amendment rights to firearms. The Spring Hill area is one of the fastest growing places in Johnson County, Klika said.
Because of statutory limits on firearms ordinances, the commission has had to thread the needle on how to approach the problem. Incorporated cities can impose ordinances on unlawful discharge of firearms within city limits, as Lenexa did on Tuesday. But unincorporated areas have no such legal options. Stilwell is unincorporated.
‘We’ve got to do something for our kids’
Hayden also said there are difficulties in pressing a case against a person suspected of reckless shooting. For instance, lab tests matching the bullet to the gun can’t take place until the suspect hands in the gun. Even then, there’s the question of how to identify which person fired the shots, if the guns were passed back and forth during target practice.
But Hayden said he’s in favor of reviewing how state statutes might be changed to ensure more gun safety, and he said he’d be willing to present ideas to lawmakers.
“We’ve got to do something for our kids. We’ve got our most valuable commodity playing in the yard and they’ve got to be safe,” he said. “To me, if you hit somebody’s house four times, that’s reckless.”
Commissioner Mike Brown warned that commission in-boxes are likely to fill up soon because they have touched a sensitive “rail” that politicians are normally loathe to touch. But he said he would support the action as long as it was focused on safety and not gun control.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups are concerned about the “slippery slope,” he said. “When you crack the door open even a little the concern is, then where does it take off to? I intend to hold my foot in the door just barely cracked open.”