Close calls prompt Butler County official to propose gun law changes

Incidents of bullets whizzing past people’s heads in parks and projectiles smashing into living rooms have one Butler County official asking state legislators to give townships more power to regulate firearm use.

MORE: ‘A big boom went off over my head’: Butler County woman almost hit by stray bullet

There have been 924 “shots fired” complaints from township residents to law enforcement since the beginning of 2014. Michaux Merhout was one of those callers, after she and her children had a too-close-for-comfort experience with errant bullets at Cherokee Park in Liberty Twp earlier this year.

Merhout said they heard gunshots when they arrived at the park but a park volunteer told her they were in no danger. She said one of the bullets narrowly missed her 13-year-old daughter Carrie.

“We heard, it was different, we heard the shot, but it (the sound) was like the bullet whizzing by, I kind of looked at her like this can’t be happening,” Merhout told the Journal-News. “And then another one, and I saw a bullet plink off a tree. It didn’t ricochet, it like bounced so I think we were at the end of the trajectory, but I saw it.”

That’s when she said she told her daughter to run.

RELATED: In rural communities, ‘guns are just a part of life’

Merhout contacted the sheriff’s post and made a report, but townships have very little power to restrict the use of firearms on private property. The cities in the county on the other hand all have ordinances prohibiting the discharge of weapons within city limits, except under special circumstances like self-defense.

In this instance, the property owner where the shots allegedly came from “expressed concern” and “made mention of a more substantial backdrop in the future” according to the police report.

Liberty Twp. Trustee Board President Tom Farrell has launched an effort to either convince the legislature to give townships more muscle in this regard or to educate residents on the proper use of firearms on their property.

“We are not trying to take away gun rights. We’re just looking for a way to co-exist in this situation,” Farrell said. “Shooting a gun in a backyard in a residential neighborhood does not make sense. So in the higher populated areas we want to put some restrictions in place that make it safer for everyone.”

MORE: Butler County lawmaker to sheriffs: ‘completely ignore this executive order’ 

A report from the Ohio Township Association notes: “Under (state law), there is no expressly permitted or inherently implied, authority for a township to regulate the discharge of a firearm.”

Farrell contacted Ohio Sen. Bill Coley, a Republican from Liberty Twp., about the issue. Coley told the Journal-News there are about a dozen gun bills in his committee and he plans to find one that might be an appropriate vehicle for the reforms Farrell is asking for. He plans to invite Farrell and other interested parties to Columbus to make a case for their request for more local control.

“My office will facilitate that discussion,” Coley said. “Until they make it clear as to what they are wanting to do, I’m a little hesitant to say I embrace anything. But I always embrace having the conversation.”

Former West Chester Twp. trustee and current State Rep. George Lang, said the Ohio laws already on the books should be enough.

“If you discharge a firearm on your property and the bullet crosses your property line you are responsible for that bullet regardless of where it goes and what the outcome is,” Lang, a Republican, said. “We already have laws on the books, we just need to enforce the current laws. In general I don’t think I would be in favor of putting more restrictions on gun owners.”

MORE: Gov. Kasich proposes major changes to Ohio gun laws, says ‘it’s a different day’

However, Merhout said given her experience not all gun owners know or abide by those laws. She said she is glad Farrell is taking up this fight and she hopes he is successful.

“We went down there knowing the shots were being fired, assuming that the property owners knew the boundaries of the park, and we trusted in those laws,” she said. “My daughter could have been killed.”

Doug Cavin, range manager at Lake Bailee Recreational Park and Gun Range in St. Clair Twp., said new legislation isn’t the answer. He said people just need to know about and adhere to Department of Natural Resources — the body that regulates shooting ranges — regulations and guidelines.

“It would depend on the amount of control they are given,” Cavin said. “It always seems like when a new law comes out, especially anything to do with firearms, you give them an inch all of a sudden they’ve got a mile.”

Cavin was on duty last month when a bullet crashed into Berneice Wright’s home. She claimed the projectile came from Lake Bailee — about one mile away — and that it wasn’t the first time homes in her neighborhood had been peppered by bullets.

MORE: On gun issues, Ohio’s governor candidates far apart 

“It (the range) does need shutting down for sure,” Wright said. “Somebody’s going to get killed and I came very close.”

Cavin noted the high berm and several stands of trees that are between the range and Wright’s neighborhood.

“To get a bullet to go a mile it’s just not going to be be possible to reach that angle to do it,” Cavin said. “A handgun, unless you have some kind of custom built deal, to be able to get that kind of distance, you’re not going to get that (distance) at all, or even close.”

St. Clair Twp. trustees passed an emergency resolution after the incident declaring the range a nuisance that is endangering its residents.

St. Clair Twp. Solicitor Gary Sheets is lining up some expert witnesses to bolster the township’s directive that the range has to better contain flying bullets. A judge has to sanction the action.

“I am preparing to file a public nuisance action on behalf of the township, “Sheets said. “The objective of this action is to have safety measures undertaken at the Lake Bailee range that prevent projectiles from escaping the confines of the ranges.”

MORE: Gov. Kasich orders review of Ohio gun background check program 

Requiring township residents to be accountable for shots fired is one thing, but proving who the shooter is in these rural areas is nearly impossible, according to Butler County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Rick Bucheit.

“We’ve been down this road before with stray rounds and knock on wood thankfully nobody’s been injured,” Bucheit said. “But to try and determine who was the shooter, could have been somebody that was not even on that range. Based on going through the house, it appears it came from that direction but I can’t definitively say right now it came from that range.”

Farrell said even if they can’t get legislative authority to regulate firearm use in populated areas, the township at least plans to hold an informational session soon about the rules governing firearms.

“At the very least we want to make sure that the residents of Liberty Twp. understand what the rules are and the ramifications of using a gun in a populated area,” he said. “At least we can educate them.”

About the Author