Rural residents may have little recourse for gun noise

Alan Miller has been living in a spacious home in rural Douglas County more than 20 years. For most of that time, he and his wife were able to sit on their back porch and listen to the natural sounds of birds singing and cicadas chirping.

But he said all that changed about a year ago when another family moved into the area. They are gun enthusiasts who enjoy recreational shooting.

“It’s not a question of target shooting,” Miller said. “I’m talking about semi-automatics and high caliber rifles. It’s like a war zone. It’s almost unbearable.”

Kerry McMillen, who lives along the same road, said he’s been disturbed by the noise, too. He said the new neighbors have dug out a shooting range, and when they use that range, the sound reverberates along a ravine, making the noise sound even louder.

“There is no way for us to get away from that noise if they shoot from that range,” McMillen said.

Miller and McMillen said they have tried talking to the new neighbors about the noise, with little success, although recently the family has moved the shooting activity further away toward a wooded area behind the homes.

But there is little else that can be done legally, they said, because the county’s noise law, which was last amended in 2011, specifically exempts, “the lawful shooting of firearms between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., or in connection with lawful hunting activities.”

Furthermore, county officials said, there is probably little the county could do to limit gun noise in rural parts of the county, even if they wanted to, because state law now prohibits local governments from enacting local gun laws.

“I’m not sure, in light of some of the recent legislation, as to what, if any, regulations local governments might be able to enact, even if we were inclined to,” County Commissioner Jim Flory said.

In 2007, Kansas lawmakers passed the state’s first law allowing people to carry concealed handguns if they underwent gun safety training and obtained a permit. Also that year, the Legislature stripped away most of the authority that cities and counties had to regulate firearms locally.

As the law stands now, local governments are prohibited from enacting any laws or regulations governing the “purchase, transfer, ownership, storage, carrying or transporting of firearms or ammunition, or any component or combination thereof.”

Melissa Wangemann, general counsel for the Kansas Association of Counties, said she was unsure whether that would apply to noise laws.

Meanwhile, others say there is a larger issue besides the state pre-empting local regulation.

In Douglas County, as well as some other counties where the rural areas are becoming more densely populated, they say what’s happening is a cultural clash involving different opinions about what a “rural” lifestyle should be like.

Flory said that’s part of what makes it difficult for the county to regulate noise from firearms.

“This is not a new issue,” he said. “There is no existing regulation on discharging firearms in unincorporated areas of the county. And it would be difficult to fashion anything in light of the hunting and other activities that take place in the county.”

Lt. Steve Lewis, spokesman for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, said he has seen the change, too, in the 30 years he has lived in a rural area in the southwest part of the county.

“Rural areas of Douglas County are becoming a little less rural,” he said. “Some of the people there tend to be suburbanites or urbanites who find things like firearms and neighbors driving all-terrain vehicles on their property to be a nuisance.”

McMillen said he thinks a common sense of courtesy ought to apply.

“Any county anywhere is a neighborhood,” he said. “Because you are involved in a neighborhood, you’re involved with your neighbors’ everything, including noises. None of my noises are loud enough to affect any other neighbor.”

Lewis said the best way to deal with noise complaints is for the neighbors simply to talk with each other about their concerns. But he said living in a growing community often involves compromises on all sides.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of learning to live with things you don’t particularly enjoy about your neighbors,” Lewis said.