On The Edge Of Suburbia: Where Noise Pollution And Gun Rights Collide

Jun 24, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 4:55 pm

While the hustle of the city may call to some, it doesn’t attract everyone. Many people move to rural areas for the space — a big backyard where they can shoot their guns off the back porch and let children run around. And some move in the pursuit of peace and quiet.

Across the country, neighbors are fighting for their own views on what rural life should be like, in states including Kansas, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. And within this common neighborly dispute, the debate over gun regulation has found its way into the conversation.

Backyard Sanctuary

Robert Strong, known to his friends as Bobby, has lived in Mebane, North Carolina, for 20 years. He moved to his current house 10 years ago and lives there with his fiancée. Strong says they garden and spend time in their backyard, enjoying their view of the lake.

“It’s our little sanctuary,” Strong said. “It’s just a quiet retreat, most of the time.”

Ben McKeown/ WUNC

Bobby Strong’s backyard overlooks the Quaker Creek Reservoir, in Mebane, North Carolina. He moved to his current house for more space to garden and for some peace and quiet.

Ben McKeown / WUNC

But for the past two years, Strong says the soundscape in his backyard has taken an audible shift.

A recording of the sound of gunfire heard from Strong’s backyard that he recorded on his iPad.

He says there at least four houses around him with neighbors who fire their guns in their backyard. Strong wants to confront his neighbors, but he says it’s intimidating to lodge a complaint against someone who is armed.

“I figure it’s a no-win situation for me,” said Strong. “I feel like if I go and confront them, it’s going to provoke them to fire their guns more than they already do.”

In March, Strong attended an Alamance County Board of Commissioners meeting to voice his complaints. He wondered if his neighbors were violating the county’s noise ordinance. When he realized the noise ordinance didn’t include language about firearm use, he and other disgruntled neighbors urged local officials to change the ordinance accordingly.

“If I could work out some type of schedule with them to say fire away for two hours on a Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. when I’m working, it wouldn’t bother me,” Strong said.

Last month, Strong decided to confront one neighbor directly about the noise. He suggested they set up a schedule so he could expect when they would shoot, but ultimately, they didn’t reach a resolution.

Since Strong spoke up at the Board of Commissioners meeting, the Board drafted a new noise ordinance, but it doesn’t include limits on gunfire use. Eventually, the Board moved on to other matters entirely and the amended noise ordinance was never passed.

In the meantime, Strong has set up a system: if he hears gunfire from his neighbors’ backyard, he’ll go to Lowe’s and window shop until he thinks his neighbors have stopped firing. The noise is becoming less of a concern for him, but only because another concern has taken its place.

Six months ago, after coming home from a business trip, Strong found a hole in his upstairs window. He wondered what could have caused it. After hearing gunfire from his neighbors, he thinks he might have an idea.

Ben McKeown/WUNC

Strong suspects the hole in his window was caused by a bullet from his neighbors, but he hasn’t found the bullet in his backyard yet

Ben McKeown / WUNC

“It’s a double-paned window and the velocity wasn’t enough to push the bullet — I’m assuming it’s a bullet — through the window,” Strong said, “So I’m thinking it fell back into the landscape below.”

He has been trying to find a bullet ever since. If he finds it, he says he wants to hold someone accountable.

Infringing On Rights

Many disputes about gunfire noise between neighbors haven’t escalated to the degree of Strong’s situation. For most, it’s simply a nuisance and some gun owners feel that annoyance does not warrant limiting gun use.

Grassroots North Carolina, a “no-compromise” gun rights group in the state, issued an alert shortly after the Alamance County Board of Commissioners drafted a new noise ordinance that mentioned gunfire. The organization viewed it as “the first step on the path to a total firearms discharge ban” in the county.

William Newton Jr. was at the same Board of Commissioners meeting Strong attended. He agrees with Grassroots North Carolina and says he does not want his rights taken away.

Adhiti Bandlamudi/WUNC

William Newton, Jr. believes people should have the right to shoot their guns when they want to. If gunfire noise is restricted to certain times of the day, he believes people will be less likely to go outside and use their firearms.

Adhiti Bandlamudi / WUNC

Newton is an avid hunter from Snow Camp, North Carolina. He feels it’s important for people to have the ability to fire their guns in their backyard, because not everyone has the option to go to a range.

“You live out in the country because you’re not allowed to shoot a firearm in the city,” Newton said. “If you really like it, like I do, I think that right should not be infringed upon.”

Newton lives near a gun range and usually goes there for target practice, but he’ll occasionally shoot cans on his back porch. Behind his house is a plot of land he and his wife will hunt on. Newton appreciates that freedom.

“I’ve always enjoyed hunting and it’s just something that I do,” Newton said. “I wouldn’t put up with anyone trying to take it away from me.”

The National Rift

Joseph Blocher and Darrell Miller, the directors of Duke Center for Firearms Law at Duke University, have been studying these types of divides across the country. They say that this kind of disagreement is nothing new, and could be considered the “heartland of nuisance law.”

“This is in some ways the essence of how nuisance law has developed,” Blocher said. “There are lots of ways in which rural uses may be in tension with rapid residential development.”

Historically, there have been stark differences between the way rural and urban areas regulate guns. In urban areas, laws are more restrictive, while in rural areas, laws tend to be more lenient.

“That division breaks down when you have cities and rural areas blending into one another, which is the case with many of these growing suburbs and exurbs,” said Blocher. “And then those lines just don’t really exist.”

This blending between rural and urban areas is happening across the country. Blocher believes this problem will only become more widespread as that blending continues.

An Emotional Battle

Local municipalities rarely get involved in these debates. Darrell Miller says it could be because it can become an emotional and philosophical one.

Miller says that in the past, two neighbors might have had a disagreement over their right to shoot their guns whenever they wanted to. But legally, that changed after 2008, when the United States Supreme Court ruled on District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark case which found that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm.

“Now, you have parties saying, ‘I’ve got this opinion in the Supreme Court of the United States that says I have an individual right to bear arms and this is what it means,” Miller said.

He says this argument makes the debate politically contentious, which could dissuade local politicians from getting involved and potentially picking a side.

Finding Compromise

Once upon a time, Paul Smith was a noisy neighbor. He used to teach concealed carry classes once a month in Eastern Wake County, North Carolina. But as the area grew increasingly residential, he started hearing complaints from neighbors.

“A neighbor would call and there would be someone every now and then who would say ‘Man, y’all sure are doing a lot of gunfire over there, aren’t you?,’” Smith said. “If that much information was getting to me, how much more was being talked about behind the scenes? So, I realized then that I needed to find a better location.”

Ben McKeown/WUNC

Paul Smith is an Army veteran who owns Frontline Defense, an outdoor shooting range. Smith wanted to find a range in the middle of nowhere, where he wouldn’t be bothered by residential growth.

Ben McKeown / WUNC

Smith wanted to find a large plot of land far away from the city, near gameland, where he and other enthusiasts could hunt and use their firearms without being a nuisance to their neighbors. Today, he owns Frontline Defense, an 1,000-yard gun range in Warrenton, North Carolina, which is about an hour northeast of Raleigh, the state capital.

He says he can understand how annoying hearing gunfire can be.

“There’s times when I’m at my home and I hear rat-a-tat-tat down the road and I’m like, ‘Man, I wanna give that guy a free gun pass,’ you know?” Smith said. “Come up to the range because I’m at home and I just want to enjoy some peace and quiet.”

Fewer than 1,000 people live in the town of Warrenton, but Smith still worries about annoying his neighbors. So, he says he sets up a schedule with them, and lets them know if he wants to shoot outside that schedule. He says it all comes down to being a good neighbor.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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