In rural Carroll County, the hottest issue these days is guns.
The county wants more places to shoot them.
For two years, the residents of this county have been fighting about whether to build a public outdoor shooting range. It is a measure of Carroll County's conservative, rural heritage that the three county commissioners -- gun owners all -- regard building a shooting range about the way they think about building playgrounds.
"Is it fair to build ball fields, swimming pools, basketball courts and equestrian rings and then say no to a shooting range?" asks Richard J. Soisson, the county's recreation and parks director.
It is a measure of the county's emerging suburban reality that nobody wants to grill hamburgers to the tune of gunfire -- making it tough to find a location for a shooting range, given Carroll County's growth.
"A shooting range in my backyard?" asks Kathy Cotton, a 23-year-old who is expecting her second child. Her family's property is less than 300 yards from what could have been a 10-lane, 250-yard playground for gun owners.
"Many of us moved here from Catonsville, Glen Burnie, Towson and so on," says Sandra Ehnen, whose 4-year-old Westminster house is within sight of where commissioners voted Thursday to put a shooting range. "We moved here to come to the country, to live among the farms, to have woods in our backyard, to enjoy the peace and quiet.
"We don't want to constantly hear gunfire."
That the county, with its legion of gun enthusiasts, would have to consider carving out a few acres dedicated to shooting would have been unheard of even a decade ago. But as an increasing amount of the county's 456 square miles turns from corn fields to tract housing, hunters and sportsmen have been shut out of areas they once roamed without disturbing anyone.
Meanwhile, the number of private gun clubs in the county dropped to 13 from 16 a few years ago. Most of the clubs are full or near capacity. The Carroll County Sportsmen Association, an umbrella group for the county's private gun clubs, has 1,300 members.
"The people against a shooting range have come here to get away from the city, and they associate gunfire with violence," said Bradley Vosburgh, a gun shop owner and an advocate of a public shooting range. "They don't realize that nearly everyone up here owns guns, and we use them for recreation, for fun."
Asks Hap Baker, president of the sportsmen association, "What's safer: Somebody shooting out of his back yard, into God-knows-where, or somebody doing it on a supervised range?"
For two years through two county boards, few disagreed with the notion of a public shooting range; there is at least one other public shooting range in the state. But many disagreed on where the range should go. The South Carroll Citizens' Committee -- an activist group founded 16 years ago to try to halt the opening of Hoods Mill Landfill in Woodbine -- fought locating the range on the now-closed landfill near their homes.
Surrounding the landfill on the Howard County line are large country homes with sprawling yards. Most of the residents are professionals, many commute to Baltimore and want to return to an ever-bucolic Carroll County each night. At a meeting last week with Mr. Soisson, the recreation and parks director, about 100 gun range opponents spoke of dwindling property values, dangerous stray bullets, irreparable harm to area businesses and disturbances to area pets from constant peals of gunfire.
They won, but another community lost. The commissioners voted to build in Westminster, in the center of the county. They voted for a 10-lane, 250-yard range that they hope could accommodate more than 1,000 customers a year. Though it will be a public facility, the commissioners are paying a fraction of the $35,000 construction costs; the sportsmen are kicking in the rest. Now another neighborhood group plans to petition the commissioners, hoping to persuade them to change their minds.
But as he stood outside the 55-year-old Dug Hill Rod and Gun Club in northern Carroll County last week, Hap Baker, was having none of it.
"These people opposed to the range are coming from nonhunting, nonshooting areas," he said. "They don't have clear information, and they're reacting on fear and emotion, not reality."
The clubhouse is sparsely furnished with mismatching picnic tables and ramshackle chairs. But that's not the main attraction. Walk out the door, and the purpose of the club's 60 acres is abundantly clear.
"Take a gun, learn about it, look at it," Mr. Baker said as he was aiming his .22-caliber semiautomatic at a target downrange. He lets off five steady rounds, the boom of gunfire readily audible underneath snug-fitting ear plugs.
James Baker, no relation to Hap, would likely be a range customer. He and his wife sell custom-made guns and they are fed up with what they say is the result of having nowhere to go to shoot.
"At a public range, it is controlled," said the 15-year South Carroll resident. "Now we have people shooting from their yards."
One of the bullets from one of those backyard shooters pierced Mr. Baker's above-ground pool recently, draining it of its 15,000 gallons of water.
"And we don't need a range?"