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Reckless Shootings in Johnson County, Kansas, Rural Areas Leave Residents Scared and Frustrated

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
During Thursday's Johnson County Commission meeting, Stilwell resident Matt Keys describes how his home was hit by bullets from an AK-47 and an AR-15 earlier this year.

Bullets from semi-automatic weapons have landed in residents' homes and cars, but not a lot can be done because "ignorance is not against the law."

Some rural Johnson County families are complaining that stray bullets and reckless shootings are damaging their property and threatening their children.

People began demanding action after a bullet this year nearly hit an 11-year-old girl riding in a vehicle. In another incident, four bullets from high-powered rifles hit a house, including a children’s computer room.

On Thursday, the Johnson County Commission voted unanimously for a resolution and official county statement “urging and promoting the safe and responsible use and discharge of firearms” in unincorporated Johnson County.

They felt the statement was necessary after upset residents in and near Stilwell reported their families have been put at risk by careless firearms activity. They complained that the laws are more lenient for AK-47s than for fireworks.

“Because the population density is increasing at such a level, we’re having these problems of people firing firearms in an unsafe manner,” Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden told the commission Thursday. “We’ve had three incidents this year, which is unheard of normally.”

Hayden said law enforcement is “harnessed” by state laws that make it hard to prove reckless conduct. There is no law prohibiting people from firing weapons in their backyards in unincorporated parts of the county.

Hayden and other advocates of the resolution emphasized that they are not anti-gun, but they are pro-gun safety. They are not interested in regulating gun ownership or ammunition.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Overland Park resident Amanda Winch, left, demonstrates her support for the gun resolution that her friend Leanna Barclay, right, was speaking in favor of during Thursday's Johnson County Commission meeting in Olathe.

The sheriff said his department plans to step up education, awareness and enforcement to protect public safety.

In the most dramatic incident, Matt Keys of Stilwell described how his home was hit by bullets from an AK-47 and an AR-15 earlier this year.

“It has been an ongoing issue in our community and it continues to get worse,” Keys told the commission. “Experience this story yourself, as a parent, a grandparent, a homeowner, and genuinely imagine if this happened to your home, children or grandkids.”

Keys described how he heard more than three hours of constant gunfire from an adjacent field on May 31. Four bullets struck his home, including one that shattered a picture frame in a room where his kids play daily and his wife works. That bullet landed in the kids’ art cart.

He said the bullet was matched by the crime lab to an AK-47. An AR-15 was also used. He said it was determined that the shooters were firing from one-third mile away, into a brush pile that the bullets went cleanly through to hit his house. He said the area encompasses 26 homes.

“We are not in the middle of a cornfield,” he said.

Neighbors of Keys and other rural Johnson County residents told the commission they are scared and frustrated that there are no consequences for such activity.

Jenny Mendizabal said it shouldn’t take someone getting killed before someone can be prosecuted. And Pat Mcroberts said it shouldn’t just be considered an “accident” when someone shoots a high-powered rifle off in a residential neighborhood.

“I understand ignorance is not against the law, but I think sometimes it should be,” he said.

In another incident reported by KSHB, Jamie Lingner told authorities she was driving south on U.S. 169 in Spring Hill on the evening of March 1 when a bullet hit her SUV. The bullet landed on the seat, barely missing her 11-year-old daughter.

Commissioner Steve Klika, who represents the Stilwell area and other fast-growing parts of unincorporated Johnson County, sponsored the resolution, saying he’s hearing more and more concerns from constituents.

“I would like to see some ramifications when the safety of individuals and their property is put in jeopardy,” Klika said. “I want to see ramifications I guess if people are going to be stupid.”

Cindy Dunham of the Johnson County Legal Services Department told the commission that state law already restricts reckless firing of weapons in cities. And just this week, on Tuesday, the Lenexa City Council voted to clarify that reckless discharging of a firearm, whether intentional or accidental, is unlawful.

But the law is murkier in the unincorporated areas.

The Commission unanimously approved Klika’s resolution, which called for the sheriff and District Attorney to give high priority to cases involving unsafe use of firearms. It also called for the planning department to provide guidance on the proper establishment of safe gun ranges, and for the county to provide more educational materials to rural residents about safe gun handling.

Finally, the commission agreed to support the sheriff in future recommendations to the state Legislature for statute changes promoting gun safety and accountability.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley