Gun rights protesters crowd January Lake County council meeting

Gun rights protesters crowd a Lake County Council meeting in January.

CROWN POINT — The Lake County council tabled a resolution to clarify private gun range rules on Tuesday, as members of the public sparred over restrictions on recreational shooting in unincorporated areas of the county.

Introduced by Councilman Christian Jorgensen, R-St. John, the resolution asks the county plan commission to draw a distinction between private and commercial shooting ranges when it revises the zoning ordinance later this year.

County lawmakers appeared willing to take up the measure, but instead deferred a vote until their next public meeting in July. Jorgensen himself agreed to the delay, citing a request by state Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, for more information about the proposal.

Later Tuesday, Jorgensen said he had spoken to Niemeyer about the resolution and that the senator was supportive.

“We try to let the state-level (lawmaker) know what’s going on so he can explain it to his folks in south county, which is what this mostly affects,” Jorgensen told The Times. “And he completely agrees.”

With his resolution, Jorgensen aims to partially ease restrictions laid out in a December 2018 ordinance regulating the discharge of firearms in unincorporated Lake County. The law permits shooting ranges only on agriculturally zoned land and requires operators to obtain a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Jorgensen argues the ordinance is overly broad because it doesn’t distinguish between commercial ranges and residents shooting on their own property. As a result, the plan commission is in the position of having to regulate both for-profit range operators and private citizens, he says.

“That wasn’t the spirit, I believe, of the ordinance when it was passed in December,” Jorgensen said at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Even if passed by the council and adopted by county planners, Jorgensen’s resolution would not automatically change the zoning ordinance. Any changes in the zoning code related to shooting ranges would then have to be approved by a majority in the council.

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As currently written, Jorgensen’s resolution leaves in place safety provisions of the December firearms ordinance. The law requires all outdoor shooting ranges, private and commercial, to be located 300 feet from the nearest residence and to have a backstop that meets state requirements.

Jorgensen says he wants to ensure private landowners don’t have to seek a zoning exception to shoot on their own property, provided they are “observing the law.”

“That’s all that this particular resolution asks the plan commission to consider,” he told fellow council members.

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Even though the resolution doesn’t attempt to roll back safety rules, some local residents present at the meeting were wary of the effort to remove private shooting ranges from the zoning board’s jurisdiction. Hanover Township resident Sharon Pacific worried that allowing private ranges to operate without a zoning exception would encourage more reckless shooting.

“We’ve had people shooting across our property,” she said during a public comment period at the meeting.

Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, was sympathetic to that position, arguing that zoning exceptions are a good way to keep tabs on which landowners have been cleared to shoot on their property.

“To me, it’s good that they have to go before the board (of zoning appeals), so we know who’s shooting,” she said.

Jorgensen contends opposition to his resolution stems in part from the idea that the zoning code should be used to police reckless discharge of firearms, a criminal violation. Private shooters who violate the gun range ordinance are a matter for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, not the plan commission, he said.

“If the sheriff isn’t enforcing the law on the books, (the residents) need to go to the sheriff’s office and ask why,” Jorgensen said. “If people are truly being reckless, that’s a sheriff issue.”

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