SMITHFIELD -- After months of debate, Johnston County Commissioners have passed an ordinance to address loud noise, including gunfire, in residential neighborhoods.
Language approved Tuesday left gun owners unhappy, but commissioners presented the ordinance as an even-handed resolution to an emotionally charged conflict. The new law bans unreasonably loud noise that is “substantially incompatible with the time and location where created to the extent that it creates actual or imminent interference with peace, order or calm.”
The ordinance, said County Attorney David Mills, is designed for use against people who consistently annoy others with loud noises. It is not for the neighbor who fires a few gunshots or sometimes cranks up his car stereo, Mills said.
In a nod to gun owners, the ordinance does not single out firearms. The law applies also to ATVs, stereos, horns and “loud, boisterous language.”
“This just treats firearms like any other noise,” Mills said.
The ordinance is the product of a six-month feud between neighbors in Oak Ridge subdivision, located off of N.C. 50 near the Cleveland community. Since March, neighbors have complained that one resident, James Whitlock III, has been shooting on his property incessantly, making excessive noise and scaring other residents.
“This problem is not going away until you help us,” resident Steve Beals told the board in May.
No one in the audience for Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting had the chance to speak. Commissioners Chairman Allen Mims said the public had had ample chance to comment, both at previous meetings and through a tidal wave of e-mails. Many of the e-mails came from gun-rights advocates, Mims said, and many of them showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the proposed ordinance.
“After 300 e-mails, I don’t think there’s anything y’all could add that we haven’t already heard,” Mims said. “We’ve already had a public meeting.”
That didn’t stop people from attending. Residents filled the board’s meeting room and clogged the hallway outside. Speakers in the hallway allowed people outside the meeting room to listen to the debate, which was interrupted several times by shouting and arguing. At one point, Mims threatened to have disruptive audience members forcibly removed from the building.
Unlike last month’s hearing, the majority of the crowd was vocally pro-gun and against the ordinance, which they argued could be interpreted too loosely.
“It leaves too many variables,” said Andy Thronton, who lives just outside Clayton and describes himself as an avid hunter. “I might not be bothering nobody, but someone who doesn’t like shooting or is afraid of guns can always say (my shooting) was scaring them,” he said.
Whitlock attended Tuesday’s meeting. Like other pro-gun residents, he said he was worried about the vagueness of the law. He also accused his Oak Ridge neighbors of mischaracterizing him in the media and harassing him — he showed reporters a video of a neighbor walking up to his property and drunkenly cursing him, telling him, among other things, “You’re an idiot… . Everybody in the neighborhood hates your ass.”
Whitlock also said neighbors had exaggerated his shooting habits. “I’ve gotten a couple of new guns in the past year, and I’ve tried them out,” he said after the meeting. “I don’t do it consistently.”
Consistent or not, the shooting has upset Oak Ridge residents. For months, they’ve lobbied commissioners to ban shooting in subdivisions, but commissioners have consistently avoided any action that could be construed as anti-gun rights.
Tuesday’s meeting provided a glimpse into why they were so hesitant. Shooting and hunting are cherished pastimes in Johnston County – even among politicians – and any perceived threat to those pastimes will be met with angry opposition.
“Everyone who shoots – and most of us shoot – understands the differences (between) doing something stupid and … being considerate,” said Commissioner DeVan Barbour. “Hopefully, this will clarify that.”