Smithtown passed the ordinance at issue back in 1967, stating that firearms — which the town defined as including BB guns, slingshots, and bows and arrows — could not be shot within 500 feet of any dwelling, school, park, beach, playground, or outdoor recreational area. First-time violations of the ordinance would result in at least a $250 fine and possible imprisonment. Encompassing a densely packed 111 square miles, the Suffolk County suburb of Smithtown has about 117,000 citizens, or more than 1,000 people per mile.
Its ordinance went unchallenged for 50 years until Hunters for Deer, a nonprofit dedicated to “conscious bowhunting,” claimed in a 2017 lawsuit that the rules violated the state’s own conservation laws and amounted to regulatory overreach.
Hunters for Deer cited state law 11-0931, which prohibits firearm discharge in certain restricted areas and limits shooting guns within 500 feet of dwellings. In 2014, the law's setback requirement for long bows was reduced to only 150 feet of such areas. The state’s law does not specifically define bows and arrows as a firearm.
Attorneys for Smithtown persuaded the trial court that the town is within its rights to enact ordinances that are more restrictive than the state's. In 2020, however, the state’s appellate division reversed that decision, stating in a slip opinion the town’s more-restrictive setback regulations were in fact preempted by the state’s existing firearms laws.
The case was appealed to New York’s high court, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has backed Hunters for Deer’s position. The agency argued in an amicus brief that the state changed its setback rule for long bows to “promote effective deer management in suburban areas.”
Representing the town at oral arguments on Tuesday, Jennifer Juengst insisted that towns have the power to rejigger setbacks below the state minimum level. “We could set it where we wanted to as long as it was more restrictive; we couldn't go lower,” she said, later adding that New York state has many different areas with “different density population problems.”
The heart of the issue hinged on whether Smithtown’s law conflicted with the state law, with the hunting group’s attorney, Christian Killoran, arguing the two laws “absolutely” conflicted with each other under the boundaries of municipal home rule because the state had already taken into account public safety concerns when setting the 150-foot restriction.
For most of the judges on the panel, however, the conflict appeared to be nonexistent or minimal, with some judges arguing the state merely set a baseline 150-foot restriction for hunters that towns could then increase.
“I’m sorry, they set minimums, they didn’t set maximums, correct? So can we really talk about a conflict if they’re not saying ‘this is the maximum?’” Judge Madeline Singas said during the hearing. “I don’t see how another setback beyond [the 150 feet under the state law] is in conflict?”
Judge Anthony Cannataro made a similar point, noting that both Smithtown and the state’s setbacks dealt with slightly different numbers but both deal in the “same principle” of setbacks.
“I know that 500 and 150 [feet] are different, but the principle behind the [state law] is that in order to create public safety you need a setback, and the local consideration … is that Smithtown is a densely populated suburb, so they need more of a setback than what the statute provides,” Cannataro said. “I don’t know if that’s a conflict.”
Judges Jenny Rivera and Michael Garcia appeared to be more on the fence regarding whether there was any conflict between the state and local laws, with the former noting the town thinks the state’s setbacks is not safe enough.
“Judge, this is probably not the first time in history that we’ve had a conflict here,” Juengst answered. “But it’s not the kind of head-on collision where we’re saying you can’t punt.”