Robert R. Shiflett's lifelong passion for guns could soon trigger a ban on the firing of automatic weapons in Baltimore County.
The owner of a gun shop named Christian Soldier, Shiflett bought 16 hilly acres in northern Baltimore County last year, and hopes to build a home there. For now, the land serves as an occasional private firing range.
Shiflett says he has shot there three times since August. But neighbors are outraged that his firearm of choice appears to be a machine gun. Stray bullets, they contend, have dented a car, broken a window of a nearby home and are endangering children.
"If you ever heard it go off, you would think you are in a Rambo movie," said David Boyd, a retired Towson University professor. "It is really scary."
Heeding those concerns, the Baltimore County Council might outlaw the firing of automatic weapons on almost all land in the county.
The council held a public hearing on the proposal yesterday and has scheduled a final vote for Friday.
"It's a safety issue," said Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, the Fullerton Democrat who sponsored the proposal and whose office is adorned with a picture of an eight-point buck he felled years ago. "You control sin- gle shots better than you can a spray" of bullets.
The law would make it a misdemeanor to fire any weapon for which a single trigger fires more than one bullet, except on approved firing ranges. County law prohibits all gun-firing in urban areas.
Shiflett rejects allegations that he is a menace who is threatening pets and property. None of the damage his neighbors point to has been caused by bullets, he says. But he realizes his chances of winning the fight are slim.
"It's hard to justify why you need it," said Shiflett, speaking of his machine guns.
Not surprisingly, the debate has polarized the community. Speakers at yesterday's hearing were evenly divided on the issue.
Pam Dudek, a neighbor of Shiflett's, lamented that she can't keep a skittish, but beloved, horse on her property because the animal would bolt if it heard a gun blast.
Gun proponents called the law a poorly conceived restriction on individual rights. Because state and federal restrictions on handguns are so tight, automatic weapons are rare and have never been shown to be dangerous, they said. Even with the ban, other semiautomatic weapons and rifles would create more noise and deliver more powerful slugs than machine guns, they added.
"Unless they can prove he's doing something unsafe, he should be allowed to do it," said Sanford Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association. "A 12-gauge shotgun is about the loudest thing you can think of."
Shiflett says he is more a collector than a shooter, and that most of the 40-odd guns he owns are unused, in their original boxes. Firing a machine gun, he says, is like owning an exotic sports car: It's costly to maintain and operate, a plaything of die-hard enthusiasts.
He says he has tried to cooperate with his neighbors, agreeing to notify them before he shoots, and firing only into a protected hillside.
But residents say their once-remote Wiseburg neighborhood is growing increasingly residential, and they can't take the risk.
"No longer do we on Bernoudy Road live in the country," said Boyd. "To call it semirural is a stretch."
A born-again Christian, Shiflett, 39, opened his Harford Road gun shop as a side business. He's been a Baltimore County paramedic since 1986, and spent 17 years in the Army. He says the attention-grabbing name of the store was a way to give thanks to God.
Shiflett has much less faith in politicians. He accuses them of ignoring logic in a rush to appease vocal constituents.
"Even though I was right and I was just, it didn't get me anywhere," he said of his conversations with Bartenfelder. "The truth is the first victim of politics."