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Gates seeks control over center fire rifles

GATESVILLE – “It’s all about safety….that’s the bottom line.”

That one statement, made by Gates County Manager Toby Chappell, summed up the feelings of the county’s board of commissioners as they continue to discuss the possibility of seeking state legislation dealing with hunting with a center fire rifle in the county.

This issue has surfaced during several commissioner meetings. On each occasion, Commission Vice-Chair Kenneth Jernigan has led the discussion, expressing his concern about the safety of other hunters, even passers-by, who are in areas of the county where center fire rifles are being used.

In particular, Jernigan has noted concern about hunters using center fire rifles in the state game lands in Gates County. That area, known as the Chowan Swamp Game Land, winds its way along an area at or near the Chowan River. There, outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hunting deer, bear, turkey, fox, rabbit, raccoon, squirrel and waterfowl as well as fishing.

The Chowan Swamp Game Land is under the auspices of The Nature Conservancy, N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources, N.C. Forestry Foundation and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“It’s a great place to hunt and fish, the only drawback is that it’s spread out over such a large area and open to the public, you never know who is in there with a center fire rifle,” Jernigan noted at a recent meeting.

Jernigan and the other commissioners are not opposed to hunters using center fire rifles; rather they are seeking to reduce the distance traveled by bullets fired from those weapons. To accomplish that, the commissioners have noted they would like to have an ordinance that prevents a center fire rifle from being discharged at ground level.

“Under ideal conditions, certain rifles can fire a projectile that is capable of traveling up to seven miles,” Chappell said. “That definitely creates an issue of safety, especially when one group is hunting and not knowing another group is nearby.”

Referencing a regulation to control the use of center fire rifles, Chappell said, “In this particular case, this is not a county ordinance; it’s a sessions law that must be approved by the North Carolina General Assembly,” Chappell said.

Chappell said he recommended to the commissioners that they first discuss this issue with local citizens in an effort to make sure this is the type of law they wish to have in Gates County.

“We shouldn’t be only be concerned with the safety of those hunting and/or visiting the game lands, but concerned for those throughout Gates County,” Chappell stressed.

As far as asking for a sessions law, Chappell said, “Once the commissioners have listened to what the citizens want in this case, we’ll be able to begin the process of what the language will look like in this law. There will be some type of minimum height standard to fire a center fire rifle. The contention there is that the bullet is not traveling a great distance parallel to the ground.”

Master Officer George Owens of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission was invited to address the issue at last week’s commissioner’s meeting.

Owens said it was possible for Gates County officials to have legislation introduced in the General Assembly in regards to a sessions law dealing with a minimum height restriction for center fire rifles.

“There is such a law already on the books in both Chowan and Perquimans counties,” Owens said. “The law in Chowan County requires that a person firing a center fire rifle must be standing eight feet off the ground when the rifle is being discharged.”

Owens confirmed that a projectile from a center fire rifle is capable of traveling great distances when fired at ground level.

“A height requirement drastically lowers the distance that a bullet from a center fire rifle can travel as it will impact its target or the ground,” Owens said.

Owens added that the wording submitted by Gates County officials for the sessions law needs to be clear and concise and needs to apply to the entire county. He said the next step in the process would be to have county officials talk with local residents in an effort to devise the law’s proper wording.

“I’ve already spoken with some of the local citizens here and they seem to be in favor of such a law,” Owen stated. “The local hunting clubs don’t seem to mind having a law like this because a majority of them use shotguns to hunt.”

Owens said the law would apply mostly to “still hunters.” He added that if a hunt club does use center fire rifles, they could meet an eight-foot minimum height requirement by simply standing on top of the dog box in the bed of their truck.

“I informed the Gates County Commissioners that if they wanted to have such a law introduced quickly, they need to have it in writing and presented to their local state legislators well before the General Assembly convenes for its short session on May 12,” Owens concluded.