Supes gun for new law

Eight months after her death, the legacy of Carmen the cat may be determined at a work session tomorrow, December 13, as the Albemarle Board of Supervisors considers whether to amend the county gun laws, and if so, how.

Current County law prohibits the discharge of firearms in any area zoned residential, but many county subdivisions– including Bentivar, where Carmen was shot–are in rural areas, where firing guns is currently allowed.

Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos pushed for a change after he prosecuted Carmen's shooter, prominent local businessman George Seymour, who was convicted in late August of misdemeanor animal cruelty.

As detailed in the Hook's May 18, 2006 cover story, "Claws & Effect: Bentivar shooting sparks outrage," Seymour, owner of the Import Car Store at the corner of Seminole Trail and Hydraulic Road, admitted to shooting Carmen because he believed she was one of several stray cats who'd allegedly pawed the valuable cars he stored on his driveway. In late August, Seymour was sentenced to 10 days and community service. (He served his time soon after the trial, says Camblos.)

The incident put Albemarle's gun laws under the microscope, as both Camblos and Albemarle Police Chief John Miller asked the Supervisors to amend them, but thus far the Supes have tabled the issue twice– first in September and again on November 1– asking county staff to provide more information and alternative proposals.

In his letter to Supes chair Dennis Rooker, Camblos focused on subdivisions. "From the standpoint of safety in heavily populated areas," he wrote, "the discharge of firearms should be restricted to the more rural areas of the county." Camblos says it's up to the Supervisors to determine what constitutes rural.

At tomorrow's work session, Supervisors will consider six proposals. Among them: leaving the county code as is; expanding the restricted area to create a "countywide safety zone," which would prohibit the discharge of firearms within 200 yards of any dwelling; allowing subdivisions to petition for restrictions in their neighborhood; and adding a 100-yard safety zone around schools and parks. Numerous exemptions would allow guns to be used in certain circumstances, such as to shoot a vicious animal or defend against a home intruder.

Supervisor Sally Thomas says she's concerned some of the alternatives may give people a false sense of security, and she also doesn't want to restrict the rights of law-abiding hunters.
"I personally am not supportive of prohibiting shooting within 200 yards of a house," she says. During hunting season in particular, she says, "I think it misleads people that they're safe when they're not."

If the supervisors can agree on one of the alternatives offered by county staff, the issue will be taken to public vote at an upcoming meeting. However, if supervisors cannot reach a consensus on one alternative, Thomas says, "We'll drop the issue tomorrow."

The idea of any ramped-up gun laws irks some County residents. "I don't understand what problem they're trying to solve," says Jackson Landers, an avid hunter and gun hobbyist who has posted his opinions of the local gun laws on his blog, rule-303.blogspot.com. "We don't have a lot of accidental shootings," he says. "I'm not sure what the point is of even looking at alternatives."

Landers, a former vice chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Party, says it makes perfect sense to prohibit the firing of weapons in densely populated areas– all of Charlottesville, and heavily populated areas of Albemarle– but he believes changing the gun laws for the entire county is the wrong approach if the real issue is that formerly rural areas have in recent years been developed.

"The problem is with the zoning," says Landers. "I don't think the answer is changing what people can do in agricultural areas. If we have agricultural areas built up to the point that they essentially become suburbs, let's change the zoning on those areas."

Thomas says the Supervisors haven't specifically talked about making zoning changes instead of amending the gun laws, but she says zoning issues are periodically discussed, and sweeping changes to the rural areas have been nixed.

"We haven't gone in that direction because it's almost impossible to define what the suburbs are when they're outside our development area," says Thomas, who says the development area is anywhere served by County water and sewer. In rural areas, she explains, "People generally have two-acre lots, and they don't think of themselves as living in the suburbs. We're not eager to change that perception."

The work session is scheduled for Wednesday, December 13, at 3pm in Lane Auditorium.

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