When a slug from a deer hunter's shotgun shattered a window at a day care center in Clarksville last month, staff members inside were terrified, imagining anything from a crazed gunman to a sniper.
Parents of children at Kid's Time Out Day Care Center were shocked, too, when they were notified about what happened.
"I was horrified," said Carolyn Gale Sanford, whose 3-year-old was in the day care center at the time of the incident.
Sanford testified during a crowded County Council hearing last week on a proposed measure to strengthen hunting rules in Howard.
"We have been given a warning shot," the Highland resident told the council. "Who here would want to be that hunter if a child had been hurt or killed?"
Several hunters also turned out for Wednesday's hearing, which ended after midnight. And though they decried the incident, they described it as an isolated event and said some aspects of the proposed revision go too far.
"It was a rare occurrence that probably can't be fixed by words in a book," said Paul Petitto, acting assistant secretary of the state's Department of Natural Resources and director of the state's wildlife agency.
County Executive Ken Ulman put forth the measure, vowing to strengthen county laws to prevent a similar incident. The council has a work session scheduled tomorrow and could vote on the bill Feb. 2.
Ulman's bill, co-sponsored by four of the five council members, would double the safety zone for firearms to 300 yards from a house or building. For a hunter in a tree stand and firing downward, the 150-yard safety zone would remain. Hunting on less than 10 acres also would be illegal in the rural western part of the county.
The bill would ban discharging a firearm in the direction of any house or building within the weapon's maximum range and within 100 yards of a public road.
Hunters said their sport is generally safe and that the new rules would exacerbate the rampant deer population problem, resulting in damaged vegetation, vehicle accidents and spreading Lyme disease.
Councilman Greg Fox said he is preparing several amendments that would eliminate the 10-acre ban and the maximum-range provision but would make a hunter responsible for any damage.
A negligent- hunting charge filed against Richard Vernon Hoenes Jr. of Clarksville, who fired the errant shot, was dropped Thursday because prosecutors said the law requires them to prove that he intended to hit the day care center.
Fox and County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said they have had e-mail from more than 200 people on the issue and have met several times with hunters and others in search of a compromise.
Hunters say the maximum-range provision is impossible to enforce because a weapon's range can vary greatly depending on circumstances and ammunition.
Extending the 10-acre rule to the rural western county and increasing the safety zone to 300 yards would remove dozens of acres of farmland from hunting.
Justin Brendel a 31-year-old farmer from Woodbine, said the larger safety zone would prevent him from firing from the fringe of his property toward the center, away from nearby houses.
He said that witnesses who testified that they feel imprisoned in their homes by the sound of gunfire during hunting season have a different mentality than he does.
"I hear a gunshot, and I wonder, 'Did he get [a deer]?' " Brendel said.
Another hunter, Marty Hayes, said that Maryland is already safer than other states that allow high-powered rifles to be used.
Shotguns firing slugs have a killing range of less than 180 yards, he said.
But others, including Gary Arthur, the county recreation and parks director, said the 33-year-old county hunting laws need revision, if only to keep up with the changing nature of the county.
Population has doubled since then, he noted.
"The time has come to re-evaluate," said Ann Selnick, president of Animal Advocates, a private group that tries to help animals and opposes hunting. "You have a responsibility to keep us safe."
Bill Serelis of Clarksville wants the proposed 300-yard safety zone imposed.
"People have a right to be safe in their houses," he said.