AIKEN - A shot from a high-powered rifle pierced the midnight air.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
When the guns ceased fire on that cold December night, Mutt, the Millers' family dog, lay dead on Apple Jack Road -- shot by an angry deer hunter who had been ordered off the property.
Residents along this washed-out dirt road in eastern Aiken County call them "killing boxes." They roam backwoods byways, block traffic with their pickup trucks and turn loose their deer dogs on private property.
"It's getting to the point that we can't walk in our own yards or travel down our roads for fear of getting shot," said Darnell Miller, one of at least 1,000 South Carolina residents who have petitioned the chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for a change in the current road hunting law.
The typical scenario is this:
At least 10 men with guns send a pack of dogs into the woods. Wearing orange hats and Army green, the men wait at the roadside beside their pickups, tracking the dog's progress with citizens band radios and locator collars.
When the dogs chase a deer out of the woods, the men shoot at them as they cross the road.
It's not that every deer hunter in South Carolina is considered a bad guy, land owners say. Many follow rules. But they say something must be done about those who trample the countryside without permission, action that is considered trespassing under South Carolina law.
Rep. Charles Sharpe, R-Wagener, swamped with calls and letters from angry taxpayers, has introduced an amendment to the state's hunting law that would prevent hunting from paved, public roads. That would severely curtail hunters who use dogs to drive deer through huge tracts of land while they wait by the roadside for the quarry to emerge.
"Threats have been made to property owners, animals have been shot, houses and vehicles have been shot at, but thank God nobody has been killed yet," Mr. Sharpe said.
His proposal would make it a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 or 30 days in prison for someone convicted of hunting from a railroad track or a public road. In incidents that involve injury or damage to property, the penalty could increase to a $5,000 fine and a year in prison. Cases that result in loss of life would be investigated as homicides under state law.
The legislation would not hamper still hunting, said Mr. Sharpe, who admits the amendment won't do anything to halt dog hunting on dirt roads, where a majority of the problems occur.
"It's a start at least," he said. "I've been battling for six years to get this passed, but for political reasons, it never got out of committee."
This year the amendment stands a better chance of survival now that lands once leased for hunting have given way to urban sprawl.
"I'm afraid that if we don't do something now the outcome will be a total ban on dog hunting, and I don't want to see that happen," Mr. Sharpe said.
That has happened in 15 South Carolina counties, including Edgefield, Greenwood and Saluda.
He's also afraid that angry taxpayers will soon take matters into their own hands if South Carolina's game wardens don't respond to their pleas for help. Some residents living in heavily hunted areas feel that many game wardens know the identity of the offenders but will not take the necessary steps to stop them.
"If we don't get the attention of our governmental officials, we'll just start our own vigilante groups," said the Rev. Sam Fulmer, a Wagener resident. "Since when did the law give more power to the deer hunters? What about the right of the property owner?"
Bob Bailey, executive director of the Sportsmans Coalition, has thrown his support to Mr. Sharpe's bill. The group of about 60,000 hunters is one of the largest sportsmans clubs in the Palmetto State.
"Our philosophy is out of sight, out of mind," Mr. Bailey said. "It makes me real uncomfortable to ride down the road and see rifles hanging out the windows of four-wheel drive trucks, drinking beer and trying to kill deer.
"Those people aren't hunters," Mr. Bailey said. "They're slobs, and they give responsible hunters a bad name."
To issue a complaint with the Department of Natural Resources, call the Operation Game Thief Hotline at (800) 922-5431.
Chasiti Kirkland can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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