Gunfire Shatters Autumnal Peace

COMMENT

September 18, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

The killers are among us. Their lethal thunder rends our web of peace, jars our senses and disturbs our souls.

One booming, throbbing assault followed by an uneasy, tense pause that provides neither quiet nor respite until the next menacing eruption. The deathly inquietude of the inner city visited on the exurban landscape. No retreat and no relief, prisoners in our own homes. Police helpless against the unseen yet all too palpable gunners.

The beauty of another glorious Maryland fall, green and cool and suffused with the brightest of dappled sunshine -- slashed ragged by the guns of autumn, the booming volleys of rapid gunfire that sound and resound among the full-leafed forests and dark hollows, across the farm meadows and the clusters of new homes. It is an equal opportunity destroyer of tranquillity and normalcy, an atavistic reminder of the vulnerability of human existence.

This annual violent intrusion and disturbance of the peace is regularly excused by society as just another "hunting season." In fact, it is a shooting season that will stretch from before the start of school way into the dead of winter. Legally. Six days a week. From before sunrise until sunset.

These shooters are invisible, stealthily lurking in the brush, only the sudden hammering cacophony of their weapons betraying their presence. Are they safely distant or threateningly close? In what direction are they aiming? It's impossible to be sure, but the sharp reports are loud and prudence dictates that one stay inside, unexposed to the dangers beyond the woodline.

The neighborhood dogs know, barking and yelping. They don't smell the excitement of blood sport, brace for the thrill of the chase. They try with feckless frustration to warn off the untoward intruders, their cries unheeded. The cows moan to each other before plodding off to the far end of their fenced pasture.

Children are quickly drawn indoors. No play on the gym set, the swings and slide will remain unused until it appears that the hunters have departed. There will be no walk into our woods that embraces a weathered picnic table and a rope swing on a sturdy ancient oak.

Though the property is posted against hunting, as are the neighboring tracts, there can be no assurance that a rifle bullet or slug will halt at those demarcation lines. In past years, we've seen these "sportsmen" walk across posted property with no concern for the niceties of trespass law or common civility -- it's all the great outdoors to them.

Some may suggest that we are overly delicate and scorn our temerity. But when you hear the repeated blast of firearms while lying in bed or weeding your garden or taking children for a walk, it is sensible to take immediate precautions. The potential harm is irreparable, the penalty for a shooting accident is ever trivial.

There is certainly a difference between hearing gunshots in the safe distance, when one can confidently assume an adequate buffer zone, and hearing them as if they were fired from next door. Only no one in this area is admitting to allowing hunting on their land.

At this point, you may be thinking: Wait a minute. Deer and quail seasons are still a couple of months off, as is the migratory goose season. What are these hunters shooting at?

Mourning doves, woodchuck, rails, crows. Not high-profile prey for the gunman, but enough to trigger the outbursts of gunfire that have been pent-up over the long spring and summer. These seasons will meld into seasons for other species; the fields and forest will long remain alive with the sound of gunfire.

Readers will please note that I am not writing about "the right to bear arms" or "animal rights" or whether possession of a 30-shot automatic weapon is necessary for one's spiritual well-being. I'm not discussing whether parks should be opened to hunting, and whether hunting is an effective wildlife management tool or a legitimate sport.

But I am concerned, damn concerned, about the insistent callous disruption of the peace of homeowners and farmers by so-called sportsmen each fall and winter.

It's a noise issue, yes. But it's in no way comparable to a neighbor's power mower or stereo speakers or a chain saw. That annoyance is usually transient, or remedied through negotiation or legal action.

But the blast of gunfire from nearby sends a signal that danger is about, that use of one's property rights should be prudently limited, that one's sense of security has been violated. It's an imposition validated as sport and income for the state.

At least there is Sunday, when hunting is supposed to cease. That's when the gunners head for the local shooting club, the muted yet persistent pop-pop of target practice cheerlessly welcomed because it carries no hidden threat.

*

Last Sunday's column about the split of the Citizens Volunteer Fire Company between Harford and Pennsylvania groups confused them with the Delta-Cardiff Volunteer Fire Company, another bi-state fire company along Harford's northern border. Delta-Cardiff, with 160 members and stations in Delta, Pa., and Whiteford, is 96 years old and going strong, united in its mission.

Delta-Cardiff President John Williams says he regrets the Citizens company's division between the Pylesville and Fawn Grove factions, but that his forces will continue to work with both groups to serve the area.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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