Machine gun firing legal, but not much appreciated

January 25, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE evening of Aug. 21, while strolling outside his White Hall home, David Boyd first gained intimate knowledge of Rob Shifflet and his machine gun. Boyd is a retired college professor. Shifflet is the owner of a Parkville gun shop called the Christian Soldier. If Jesus returned today, would he feel the need to pack heat?

Shifflet thinks such a question is impertinent. He named his gun shop after his religious beliefs and points his guns for what he maintains are his constitutional beliefs, even if people in the vicinity take frightened exception.

This tells us much about Shifflet, and maybe it also tells us about some folks in Carroll County, who are raffling off a handgun to raise money for the Republican party. If people out there object, maybe they'd better join folks in White Hall and duck for cover.

In August, says David Boyd, one of Shifflet's bullets zipped past his head as he walked along the driveway of his northern Baltimore County home. Boyd ran inside the house and called police, while he heard "many, many shots resounding in the area, a lot of them coming from an assault weapon. The continual, repeated, rapid fire was loud and extremely disturbing."

Two county police officers found Shifflet firing his gun -- a 9 mm machine gun, "like you'd see in Vietnam," says Boyd -- a few hundred yards from Boyd's house. They watched Shifflet fire. He showed them his gun permits and said he had a right to fire weapons on his own property, 16 acres he owns but does not live on.

The police say Shifflet is right -- he's operating within the law, if not within the bounds of civility. Boyd spoke to some of his neighbors and found they were equally infuriated. Sixty of them sent a petition to county police complaining that the shooting scares them.

One neighbor said he was scared to walk his dog. Another said he and his wife were afraid to eat dinner on their deck, because it overlooked the firing area. Another said he was scared to take his children outside. One spoke of finding a bullet hole in the side of his truck, another of a broken window in his house. Shifflet denies the bullets are his. He says he fires into paper targets.

And the police say Shifflet's land is outside what is defined as the county's Metropolitan District, so it is not illegal to discharge a firearm there.

"As bizarre as it sounds, he's within the law," police spokesman Bill Toohey said yesterday. "There's no legal thing the county can do."

"So, what happened," says Boyd, who taught at Towson University for 28 years, "was an agreement. The police asked if Shifflet would be willing to call them when he was going to shoot. He said OK. The police got the names of neighbors who would be called so we wouldn't hike and bike and barbecue while he was shooting. He laid low for a long time, but he maintains it is his right to shoot when he wants."

In recent weeks, Boyd says more shooting has occurred, and no warning calls. About 10 days ago, he says, he wrote to police but received no response. Yesterday, police promised to look into the problem.

Shifflet has not returned several calls to his Christian Soldier gun shop, whose very name drew response yesterday from Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Curran has been the state's bravest political voice on handguns, calling for a blanket ban on them.

Yesterday, he was asked for reaction to the Carroll County handgun raffle -- and the continuing story of Rob Shifflet.

"I guess you can't stop it, but the idea of a `Christian soldier' and selling guns is inappropriate," Curran said. (In a previous interview, Shifflet described himself as a born-again Christian, and thereafter named his shop.)

"Come on," Curran said. "I was in church Sunday, and I think the use of guns goes counter to the message of the gospel. And I'm not aware of any organized religion that advocates the selling of guns."

Nor, until recently, any political party that raffled away a handgun to raise money.

But we now have the Carroll County Republican Central Committee selling tickets for a chance to win a Beretta 9 mm pistol. A drawing will be held Feb. 26 at the county's Republican legislative breakfast.

In the meantime, the raffle has drawn verbal fire from Democrats, created a rift within the Republican Party -- but drawn publicity (and raffle money) from around the country.

"Inappropriate," Curran said. "Holding up a symbol of violence like that undermines the very important message we're trying to send children. And this is the political party that suggests it is the party of family values. Is that a family value?"

The lucky ticket-holder, incidentally, wins not only a handgun but a copy of a book, "More Guns, Less Crime," by John Lott, who argues that crime could be reduced if more citizens carried guns.

Those folks around White Hall, near Rob Shifflet's target area, might want to look for a copy -- whenever they think it's safe to come out of their crouches.

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