Gun rights protesters crowd Tuesday's Lake County council meeting

Gun rights protesters crowd Tuesday's Lake County Council meeting.

CROWN POINT — The Lake County Council widened its prohibition on gunfire in residential south Lake County Tuesday over the protests of gun owners.

The council voted 5-2 to amended its ban on the discharge of firearms near neighboring homes, enlarging the exclusion zone from 300 feet to 700 feet in unincorporated county areas.

Councilmen Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, and David Hamm, D-Hammond, cast the "no" votes. Council members Charlie Brown, D-Gary; Christine Cid, D-East Chicago; Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, Elsie Franklin, D-Gary and Christian Jorgensen, R-St. John voted "yes."

The council softened the restriction with two exceptions: the exclusion zone wouldn't apply to hunters during hunting season and it wouldn't apply if gun owners get signed permission from their adjacent neighbors to discharge weapons at a closer distance.  

An overflow crowd of more than 150 called out their opposition to tighter restrictions during the debate and booed loudly following the first of several votes to pass the ordinance into the law books. "They passed it. We got screwed," one man shouted from a nearby hallway.

Sheriff Oscar Martinez and several uniformed security officers stood by to ensure the raucous meeting didn't get out of hand.

Several members of the crowd said the restrictions fall unfairly on south county residents, like themselves, who previously had the freedom to safely target practice on their real parcels of five or more acres, but would be denied that right because of an unfriendly neighbor.

"South county is a different culture. People moved there for hunting and enjoying the outdoors. To restrict the people there already to enjoy that culture is a travesty, in my opinion," one man said.

They complained that none of the council members imposing the restrictions live in the unincorporated county areas and there already are laws on the books to punish irresponsible gunfire.

One concluded, "All we have to do is vote these guys out, if they do this," one protester said, followed by cheers from the crowd.

The ordinance now goes to the Lake County Board of Commissioners who meet 10 a.m. Jan. 16 to either approve or veto it.

Jorgensen, who supported the restrictions, said it was needed to curb irresponsible shooting by encouraging gun owners to be on good terms with their neighbors. 

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"It's a neighbor issue in an increasingly populated area. We had complaints about people not being good neighbors. I want to leave this question in the hands of the people to reach a compromise and be good neighbors.

He added this measure is a compromise from an initial proposal to expand the exclusion zone to 1,000 feet without the hunting and neighborly exceptions he insisted on.

The council first took this issue up last July when residents of a rural subdivision near Lowell complained gun owners were peppering their properties with errant bullets.

Former 7th District Councilman Eldon Strong met with the subdivision residents and local gun owners and proposed the new ordinance, requiring a berm and a 300-foot exclusion zone as a compromise between gun safety and gun rights. It passed in December by a 4-3 margin.

Strong left the council last month following his primary election defeat to Jorgensen and council members took up the debate again in his absence.

The council is no stranger to gun rights issues. Last year, it debated, but declined to close gun shows regularly held at the Lake County Fairgrounds as demanded by gun control protesters following the Feb. 14 mass school shooting of 17 people, 14 of them students, in Parkland, Florida.

There is still another piece of unfinished business.

Jorgensen asked the council to repeal another ordinance, passed last month, putting further restrictions on gun owners who set up private gun ranges on their private property.

Jorgensen said the ordinance unfairly requires gun owners to obtain a zoning change from the county and build a backstop, like an earthen berm just to target practice in their back yard. He said the county shouldn't be regulating non-commercial shooting ranges.

Some in the crowd complained the repeal doesn't help them because the 700-foot exclusion zone remains in place. 

The council voted 4-3 on first reading to repeal the private gun range ordinance. It is scheduled to cast a second and final vote Feb. 12.

The council voted to name Bilski as council president and Dernulc as vice president for 2019. Dernulc becomes the first Republican to hold that ceremonial post in a decade.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.