Re-enactors: Could government take aim? | Daily Record | Daily Record
Re-enactors: Could government take aim?
Hobbyists worry about new regulations in wake of Wild West City shooting
By Abbott Koloff • Daily Record • June 22, 2008
Two years after an accidental shooting left a cowboy actor paralyzed at the Wild West City theme park, gun charges filed recently in that case have historical re-enactors worried about the impact on their hobby.
A Sussex County grand jury indictment against Wild West City and its owners earlier this month included alleged violations of state gun laws, including carrying weapons without proper permits. Some re-enactors say those charges might have implications for them.
"It puts us all in a gray area," said Phil Berg, a Civil War re-enactor from Washington Township.
Berg and other re-enactors last week said they would like to see their legal status clarified -- and would agree to legislation imposing safety regulations in order to get such clarification. Greg Mueller, a Sussex County assistant prosecutor, said he plans to talk to local legislators about crafting such a law.
That proposal is the result of a shooting that occurred after a 17-year-old cowboy actor mistakenly loaded a gun to be used in a mock gunfight with real bullets instead of blanks two years ago. The bullets had been brought to the Byram theme park by another actor, allegedly against park rules.
Scott Harris, a cowboy actor from Netcong, was struck in the forehead with a bullet and remains partially paralyzed. He now lives in a Harding group home and recently filed a lawsuit against Wild West City.
Mueller said he doesn't expect gun charges to be used against other re-enactments, saying there should be some discretion in their application.
He said he sought those charges in the Wild West City case partly because of safety violations allegedly committed there. He said the park didn't have a safety officer in charge of dispensing blank ammunition. Most re-enactments require safety officers to dispense ammunition or check gun barrels before guns are fired, he said.
"Wild West City is a prime example of what can happen when there are no safety controls in place," Mueller said.
Re-enactors say they are at least partly covered under the current law -- which allows exhibitions using historic weapons as long as local police are notified. But they also acknowledge that the law is not completely clear.
Civil War re-enactors sometimes carry sidearms. State law bars the possession of all handguns without a permit to carry, according to Mueller. The law includes some exemptions, but not for re-enactors.
"We all would feel better if it was listed as an exemption," said Greg Balcastro, a Civil War re-enactor and a Morristown police officer.
"When I got into the hobby, I knew there was no legal definition of us," said Steve Santucci, of Rockaway Township, a Revolutionary War re-enactor.
Santucci's group participates in the July 4th celebration at Washington's Headquarters in Morristown, firing muskets loaded only with powder. It was scheduled to participate in this weekend's re-enactment of the Battle of Monmouth. Santucci said publicity over the Wild West City case led re-enactors from other states to express concerns about coming to New Jersey.
"We have hundreds of re-enactors coming from 16 states for the Battle of Monmouth re-enactment," said Santucci. "Some of them are asking whether they are going to get arrested coming into New Jersey."
Santucci said he was concerned that the gun charges in the Wild West City case could lead to similar charges against other re-enactors, regardless of their safety practices.
"Once you open a door and establish a precedent like that, who's to say (other law enforcement agencies) won't use it?" he said.
Mueller said those charges are partly based on past opinions provided to him by the state Attorney General's Office related to the use of weapons for theatrical productions and movie and TV sets.
One of those opinions, in a letter sent to a re-enactment group in 1993, states that New Jersey law permits the possession of antique rifles for exhibitions "if the event is approved in writing by the chief law enforcement officer of the municipality in which the event is to be conducted."
It goes on to say that the law doesn't grant similar exemptions for handguns, whether or not they are considered antiques. The law does allow the use of handguns altered to fire only blanks, the letter states, as long as that gun can't be altered again to fire bullets.
Mueller said he plans to talk to legislators about proposing a law to create a special exemption to allow historic re-enactors to legally carry weapons -- but also requiring some safety regulations on a hobby that now is largely self-regulated.
State Assemblywoman Alison McHose and state Sen. Steve Oroho, both R-Sussex County, did not respond to messages seeking comment. McHose previously said she would look into possible legislation regarding the safety of re-enactments, and Oroho said he would be open to suggestions from law enforcement authorities.
Several local re-enactors said they would have no problem with such a law, as long as it doesn't go too far. Mueller said it might require all re-enactments to have safety officers. Re-enactors said most groups already do that, with safety officers checking the barrels of muskets before they are fired.
"I think on the face of it, it's agreeable," Berg said. "They have to clear up the gray areas."
In the Wild West City case, a grand jury handed up a 25-count indictment two weeks ago after plea negotiations broke down. Along with the gun charges, Wild West City's owner, Mike Stabile, was charged with aggravated assault and tampering with evidence.
Stabile allegedly removed bullets brought to the park by an actor before police had a chance to examine them, according to the indictment. He handed them over to police several days after the shooting, Mueller said.
Abbott Koloff can be reached at (973) 428-6636 or firstname.lastname@example.org.