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Stray bullets trigger gun debate in Duluth Township

When a township resident says they felt a "bullet whizzing by their head" during deer hunting season, the police department takes note.

Such complaints from people who live in a narrow band of Duluth Township -- between Highway 61 and the lakeshore -- are prompting officials to take a close look at the township's firearms laws.

They will hold a public meeting tonight to begin discussing whether the township should ban the use of firearms between Highway 61 and the lakeshore.

The township can't ban hunting in the area, but it can restrict gun use if residents decide that would be the best way to address the issue, said Supervisor Dave Mount.

"We want to have the citizens help us craft a good path forward, even if that path is doing nothing," Mount said. "We're in brainstorming mode."

The strip of land in question is about seven miles long and varies in width from a few hundred yards to several times that. Most of the land is privately owned and is the most densely populated area of the township, Mount said.

"In 2006 and 2007, we had a couple serious reports" of stray rifle shots, said Duluth Township Police Chief Shawn Padden, though no one has been struck by a stray bullet. Local game wardens also have received complaints about gunshots in the area during the fall, Padden said.

Padden and Mount emphasized that the meeting's focus is to provide for public safety, not restrict gun ownership rights.

"We don't want something bad to happen," Padden said.

Other somewhat-rural municipalities already have firearms restrictions, Padden said, including Hermantown. It is illegal to discharge a single projectile firearm within the 36-square-mile city; that means hunting birds with a shotgun is OK, but hunting deer with a rifle is not.

State statute also prohibits the taking of a wild animal "within 500 feet of a building occupied by a human or livestock without the written permission of the owner, occupant, or lessee," though it appears that some people have been violating that statute in Duluth Township, Padden said.

Mark Herman's home sits on 80 acres of land between the highway and the shore. He and his father hunt deer on the property, and Herman feels that existing laws, if enforced, should be enough to quell safety concerns.

"You're not supposed to discharge your firearm if you're on a road right-of-way," or trespass along the railroad tracks that run near the highway, Herman said.

"My concern is, do you create another law?" Herman said. "But it will be great to get everybody together, listen to their concerns, and discuss it."