Community caught in the crossfire: Residents file lawsuit against Lowcountry gun range
HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Some residents of rural Hampton County near the town of Yemassee worry that any given day could be their last.
They say they’ve escaped death after poorly aimed guns fired from a nearby gun range constantly put their lives and property at risk, with the people shooting at that range sometimes missing their targets.
“With every gunshot, within the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘that bullet could very well be headed toward my property or my home or to me,’” says Ben Fennell, who was born in Hampton County and lives near the range. “With the range now, people won’t let their kids out. I will not let my kids out while the range is active,” he says.
“[There is] gunfire all day long, late in the evening, and sometimes it sounds like they’re shooting cannons,” says Robert Mixon, who owns a home near the range.
Even more than the noise, which Fennell says will sometimes shake the foundation of his home, Mixon says he fears where the gun is pointed.
Mixon’s fear is a concern several residents say they have. The Maltese Arms Shooting Club was Established in 2017, according to their business license, and open for six months before people who live near it say the gunshots started to hit a little too close to home.
“We have a story of young lady driving by the range one day,” Fennell says. “Next thing she knows, there’s a bullet that shot her tire out.” He goes on to say, “my distant cousin was walking on the street, and in front of his face, a bullet flies by. He falls down to all fours and starts running like a dog, an animal to get away from it.”
Telling stories of bullets popping tires, shattering flowerpots and whizzing through rocking chairs and drywall, concerned citizens say they’ve had enough.
Several of these stories and more are detailed in incident reports from local authorities over the last several years and now, a lawsuit filed in Hampton County in November 2022 against the range. The court documents call the atmosphere around the range “nothing short of a warzone,” demanding the owners and operators to pay up and pack up.
The legal team behind the lawsuit: Lowcountry attorneys Jason Stevens and Nathan Williams, based out of Charleston and Mount Pleasant, respectively.
“I was in disbelief,” Stevens says. “It’s unbelievable that something like this could be going on for 4 or 5 years. [The 12 plaintiffs] don’t know what day is going to be their last due to a stray bullet coming into their window or their yard or even when they’re walking down the street.”
Stevens and Williams detail in the lawsuit a plant nursery, Baker’s Nursery, established 20 years before the range and right across the street from the gunfire has fallen victim many times. From bullets shattering pots to darting through blueberry bushes, the Baker family alleges in the lawsuit they’ve feared for their customers’ lives and their own.
So, why has nothing been done?
Fennell, the spokesperson for the group of concerned citizens, says the problem lies in the jurisdiction, as the lawsuit further states. The documents claim both the Yemassee Police Department and the Hampton County Sherriff’s Office addressed residents’ concerns saying that nothing can be done because the gun range where the bullets are shot from is inside Yemassee town limits. The properties where the lawsuit states the bullets land is outside of town limits in an unincorporated portion of Hampton County, just across Pocotaligo Road, where several plaintiffs live or work.
The lawsuit states county and town council have not properly addressed these concerns, either.
In response to the complaints and concerns, we reached out to the Maltese Arms Shooting Club, to which a partner with the business replied, in part:
“After receiving complaints from one of the neighbors, Ben Fennell, back in 2020, we decided to shut the range down to better evaluate the concerns. This led to a substantial investment on the business’ behalf to build higher berms and establish a target height restriction of 3ft. After over a month of renovations we invited Mr. Fennell to come inspect the work completed in hopes to show dedication on our end in regard to how important safety for the surrounding community is to us. Mr. Fennell never responded to our invitation, so we moved forward with opening our business back up.”
Additionally, through some research, we found that the range, as a business entity, dissolved in March of 2022. But customers still come and go, and you can still buy a membership on their website.
Business officials responded saying a change in ownership meant filing their business under a different name, and they are in good standing. We have not been able to confirm that new business license, nor have the attorneys working on the case, as the lawsuit states, which could mean the gun club is operating illegally.
Despite these efforts from the range, concerned citizens say poorly aimed guns continue to send bullets flying onto their properties, continuing to threaten their livelihoods. Fennell says what the range has done still isn’t enough to protect the community or make up for the horror stories that keep racking up.
“We don’t stand in front of windows anymore,” Fennell says. “These things are daily concerns for the community members. And this is a poor community; a lot of people are afraid to speak up. I’ve had multiple people say, ‘I’m afraid to speak up. If you can get it to a court, I’ll come, but right now, I don’t want to lose my job, I don’t want to have a bullseye on my back,” he says.
The lawsuit states the owners and/or operators of the gun club face eight legal claims that warrant damages for the plaintiffs, in addition to shutting the business down until a solution can be found. The allegations are as follows:
- Strict Liability – Abnormally Dangerous Activities
- Negligence/Gross Negligence
- Private Nuisance
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress/Outrage
- Noise-Related Nuisance
- Preliminary and Permanent Injunction
Stevens, one of the attorneys working on the case, says he and the plaintiffs want to make one thing clear in taking this to court.
“This has nothing to do with the second amendment,” Stevens says. “This is not a political issue. Nobody here is saying that a properly run gun facility that takes the proper steps and operates within the bounds of the law shouldn’t be allowed to remain open.”
But not even winning the case, residents say, can fix the mental anguish that came with every broken window, patched drywall, broken flowerpot or popped tire. The fight for safety in what these residents call a ‘once peaceful town’ isn’t over.
“What we’re doing, as a community, is we’re saying ‘it’s wrong, it’s enough, we’re not going to tolerate it anymore,’” Fennell says.
We reached out to both the Hampton County Sheriff’s Office and Yemassee Police regarding the jurisdictional issues in investigating reported shootings near the range. We have not yet heard back from either.
The full comment from the Maltese Arms Shooting Club is below:
After receiving complaints from one of the neighbors, Ben Fennell, back in 2020, we decided to shut the range down to better evaluate the concerns. This led to a substantial investment on the business’ behalf to build higher berms and establish a target height restriction of 3ft. After over a month of renovations we invited Mr. Fennell to come inspect the work completed in hopes to show dedication on our end in regard to how important safety for the surrounding community is to us. Mr. Fennell never responded to our invitation, so we moved forward with opening our business back up.
Since that time, Mr. Fennell has called on local law enforcement, Town Council, SLED, and the Amtrak Police making claims that our range is an endangerment to the entire community. We have happily invited each entity to our range, and after each inspection, we were told that we could proceed with business. In addition, we have supplied each local patrol car with programmed gate cards to better ensure they have access to our range in the event that they are needed. Despite all efforts, we regularly face new accusations from Mr. Fennell and local media outlets without any evidence to support these claims.
In regard to our business license, we are in good standing with the Town of Yemassee and renewed in April of 2022 for another year. We hope to earn the respect of the community as we continue to make all efforts in providing a safe place for gun owners to enjoy a range day with family and friends.
Copyright 2022 WCSC. All rights reserved.