Machine-gun firing range is a target of concern for neighbors

Weekend mornings, John Famolari's two young children love to play baseball and soccer in their spacious backyard - at least until their neighbor across the creek breaks out his machine guns.

In a wooded lot about 500 feet away, Dr. Michael Land regularly uses a Thompson submachine gun and other automatic weapons for target practice. The racket often makes it hard for Famolari and his wife to talk - and even harder for them to entertain guests at their 4,500-square-foot brick home.

What's worse, Famolari says, is the worry. When the gunfire starts, he calls his kids inside.

"You can never plan for an accident," says Famolari, a computer technician who in 2002 moved to Union County from New Jersey. "There's always the chance there will be a ricochet or a misfire. And I don't want it to be in my kids' direction when it happens."

Such concerns are widespread in and around Stonegate, a neighborhood of 260 well-kept suburban homes next to the firing range.

N.C. law is designed to keep machine guns out of civilian hands in all but the rarest circumstances. But inconsistent interpretations of the law have allowed Land and others to shoot machine guns for sport - a practice that many believe legislators intended to ban.

The problem is not uncommon around the state, says Roxane Kolar, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence.

"We hear on a monthly basis from people who say they're hearing machine-gun fire in the neighborhood," Kolar said.

The decisions about who can legally operate machine guns in North Carolina rest largely in the hands of the county sheriffs, who must sign off on all applications before the federal government will approve them. Some sheriffs, including Union County's, approve a significant percentage of the applications. Others almost always reject them.

In Mecklenburg County, no machine-gun applications have been approved since late 1994, when Jim Pendergraph was elected sheriff. Chip Bailey, the current sheriff, said he and Pendergraph know the dangers those weapons may pose.

"If a machine gun falls into the wrong hands, obviously it could be a real problem," Bailey said.

Privacy laws make it impossible for the public to know who in their region owns machine guns. But there are thousands of them in the Carolinas.

In 2000, there were about 9,500 registered machine guns in the Carolinas, according to the most recent publicly available data. (Those numbers probably haven't changed much because a federal law - aimed at restricting automatic weapons - prohibits civilians from buying machine guns manufactured after May 1986, according to Earl Woodham, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.)

There's little to suggest machine guns are a major problem in the Carolinas, Woodham says. But when complaints arise, as they have many times in Wesley Chapel, the ATF investigates, he said.

He and Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey said they have determined that Land is following the law, and Land has won a court case challenging the legality of his shooting range in the town.

"There's absolutely nothing we can do to stop him," Cathey said.

A threat, or not?

The man behind the Wesley Chapel controversy is a silver-haired gynecologist who owns about 300 guns, including a number of machine guns. Land, 59, typically shoots several times a week on his homemade firing range, often with machine guns that can fire hundreds of rounds a minute, according to him and his neighbors.

Surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, his 6-acre tract in Wesley Chapel is flanked on the west by the residents of Stonegate and on the southeast by property owned by Kathy and Michael Patterson.

When Land shoots his large-caliber weapons, the Pattersons say they can feel the vibrations through the floorboards of their Craftsman-style home.

A dog they adopted three years ago was so terrified of the gunfire that they had to give it back. The Pattersons are worried, too - particularly for their teenage daughters.

"My kids can go out on our property and all of a sudden the machine gun starts - and we're frantic," Kathy Patterson said. "We have to hunt them down."

In nearby Stonegate, many residents said they didn't know about the firing range until after they moved in.

For Dana Wilson, hopes of a peaceful neighborhood were crushed long ago. Too often, she says, weekend social events turn out like the one in June, when she and her husband had friends over for a cookout. Their friends' 4-year-old son was on the backyard swing set when the machine-gun fire erupted.

The boy ran to the deck "crying hysterically," Wilson said. The party had to be moved indoors.

Land didn't respond to the Observer's requests for an interview. But in 2008 testimony before the Wesley Chapel Board of Adjustments, he said he has taken extensive steps to make his range safe. To stop the bullets, he brought in dirt, sand and railroad ties to create a 12-foot-high berm.

A National Rifle Association official hired by Land concluded that his range is "no threat to the neighborhood."

Sheriff Cathey agrees. Cathey, who in 2004 signed off on Land's most recent application for a machine gun, says he thinks that hunters who use high-powered rifles present a larger danger to the public.

"I would venture to say the chances of a round getting off (Land's) property are very slim," the sheriff said.

Roy Ruel, a firearms expert who neighbors hired to evaluate the site, came to a far different conclusion. He determined that some rounds fired from the range could travel up to three miles - and that the threat of stray bullets "poses an unacceptable safety hazard to surrounding residents."

Michele Sexton's family is well aware of the tragedy that wayward bullets can bring. The 16-year-old Rock Hill girl was wading in a Carowinds wave pool in June 1987 when a stray bullet ended her life.

Authorities concluded that the bullet that struck Sexton in the chest had been fired by a group of men who had been target shooting a half-mile away. Three of those men were convicted of illegally making and possessing a machine gun.

"Those guns are made to kill - and that's what it did," Michele's father, Ronnie, says today.

'Twisted interpretation'

N.C. legislators intended to put sharp restrictions on machine guns. State law generally prohibits the use of those guns, except among soldiers, law enforcement officers and merchants who need them for "the purpose of defending" their business.

Land claimed he needed a Thompson submachine gun for "protection of business," according to a 2004 Union County permit application. Favored by gangsters in the early 1900s, the "Tommy" gun can fire more than 700 rounds a minute.

Sheriff Cathey contended Land was exempt from the state's machine-gun prohibition because he planned to use the weapon to protect a mail-order jewelry business.

But in Land's 2008 testimony before the Wesley Chapel Board of Adjustments, he said he had never operated a business at the property.

Tom Terrell, a Greensboro land use attorney who consulted Wesley Chapel residents about the matter, said he believes Land is clearly using his machine guns for sport, not to protect a business.

"I think it would be a twisted interpretation of the statute to conclude his machine guns are protected," Terrell said.

Terrell said he believes the Union County sheriff has refused to enforce the state's machine-gun law.

But Cathey said Land showed proof of the business he needed to defend, submitting documents about its inventory. The sheriff declined to provide those documents to the Observer, citing a federal confidentiality law.

Since 2005, the Union County sheriff has authorized 12 machine-gun permits, most of them for the stated purpose of protecting businesses. But Cathey said he sees nothing in the state law to prevent machine guns from being used for recreation.

Others disagree.

"My view is that the statute doesn't allow for the recreational use of a machine gun," said Jeff Welty, assistant professor of public law and government at the N.C. School of Government.

"If there's no business there at all, the statute appears to forbid using a machine gun," he said.

Officials with the N.C. attorney general's office did not respond to questions about the legality of recreational machine-gun use.

N.C. Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat who has pushed to tighten the state's gun laws, said he doesn't believe lawmakers intended to let machine guns be used for sport. He's also skeptical that many would need such weapons to defend businesses.

"I can't think of a business you'd need to protect with a machine gun - unless you're protecting Fort Knox," Michaux said.

Growth spurs conflict

In 1991, Land bought the Wesley Chapel property - largely so his six sons would have a place to ride dirt bikes and "learn how to shoot and be boys," he said in a 2008 interview.

Eight years later, developers began work on nearby Stonegate, an upscale neighborhood where brick homes typically sell for more than $350,000.

As the area grew, Land rotated his gun range so the bullets weren't headed toward Stonegate, then continued firing.

Before long, authorities were fielding complaints.

One November morning in 2007, teachers and students at New Town Elementary School were outside when they heard gunfire. The students were rushed inside.

Cathey determined that the shots had come from Land's range, a little more than half a mile away. Land agreed to stop shooting during school hours.

He subsequently spent $15,000 to reinforce his gun range, according to his 2008 testimony. To stop the bullets, he built the berm - roughly 12 feet high and 16 feet thick.

In 2008, Wesley Chapel passed an ordinance that sharply restricted the use of firearms. Soon afterward, the town issued Land a cease and desist order, saying his range was illegal because it violated land-use laws.

Land fought back in court, citing the N.C. Sport Shooting Range Protection Act - a 1997 law designed to protect longtime owners of gun ranges from encroaching development and noise ordinances.

This year, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Wesley Chapel couldn't shut down Land's firing range because it was grandfathered in under the old land-use rules.

But as many neighbors see it, the decision about Land's machine guns ought to be simple. Nothing in the statutes allows those weapons to be used for sport, they say.

"There's a law on the books," Kathy Patterson said. "But it really doesn't mean a thing."