STILWELL, Kan. — Katie and Matthew Keys are living their dream; To raise their son and daughter in the town they grew up in — Stilwell, a community where the country meets the suburbs.
The Keyses live in a gray and white house located on a one-acre, tree-lined lot in a subdivision. A large wrap-around porch equipped with a swing and lilacs lining the perimeter of the white wood railing create a country-like feel.
"I've lived here my whole life and loved the peace and quiet," Katie Keys said. "It's been taken from me."
Beyond the serene ambiance, a closer look at the Keys' home reveals patched up holes in the freshly painted exterior. Four stray bullets struck their home last year.
One of the bullets blew through the wall of their kids' playroom and hit Matthew Keys' architecture license, just inches above a small, white table where their kids sit to color.
The bullet ricocheted off the framed license and landed in a cart that contains the kids' art supplies.
"It's taken away my sense of sanity and safety in my own home," Katie Keys said. "As a mom, that doesn't sit well with me."
'It was like warfare'
It started on May 31, 2020, when the Keyses heard loud gunfire that started around noon. The excessive pops stood out from the gunshots the Keyses grew accustomed to while growing up in the country.
"It was like warfare," Matthew Keys said. "It was nonstop — four hours of gunfire."
The Keyses said the gunfire sounded like it was aimed directly at their home.
While Matthew Keys was working in the garage, he said he heard glass shatter, but a walk around the home's exterior didn't reveal any damage.
Later, as the gunfire persisted, Katie Keys called the sheriff's office.
"The deputy I spoke to said, 'There's nothing I can do about it other than send an officer to try and figure out where they're shooting from. Where you live, they're not breaking the law because it's legal to shoot there,'" Katie Keys said. "I said, 'Well, that's disappointing but I want you to know that I'm calling this in because I don't feel safe in my own home. This is a problem and I've never called about gunfire ever before in my lifetime.'"
The next day, the Keys' son, who was 5 years-old at the time, found the broken glass in the playroom. At the time, the Keyses thought only one bullet hit their house.
No law to protect them
The Keyses filed a police report. Forensics came out to the home to investigate. Three more bullets were discovered, one of which is still lodged in the wall behind the Keys' dresser in their bedroom.
The bullet that went into the playroom entered at head level for a person of average height.
The investigation revealed college students were shooting on their grandfather's property, located less than a third-of-a-mile from where the Keyses live. The men used a brush pile as a backstop.
"I can't think of one person who thinks it's a good idea to fire a semi-automatic weapon in the direction of a home from a third-of-a-mile away," Katie Keys said. "It makes me sick and I have laid awake at night so many hours, more than I can count. How different my life would look today had one of my children or my husband or all of the above been taken from me because of someone's recreational activities on a Sunday."
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden said there's little the authorities can do to hold the shooters accountable.
"It’s ridiculous that in this day and age in Johnson County, Kansas, that we can’t have children safe in their own playroom — it’s unacceptable," Hayden said.
The lack of accountability is due to weak laws regarding reckless shooting in unincorporated areas of Johnson County.
"The problem is, the definition of 'reckless' is so legally binding that you have to prove that a person's intent was to be reckless," Hayden said. "They would have to know that what they’re doing is reckless behavior and intentionally do so. That's really a tough thing to prove, especially in court."
Hayden and the district attorney's job is to uphold the law as-is, so no charges will be filed.
"Our hands our tied," Hayden said. "[The shooters] thought what they were doing was safe. It didn’t turn out that way."
The Keys want the law to change
The Keyses said they have spoken to their local county commissioners and also taken their concerns to state legislatures.
In cities like Overland Park, Olathe and Kansas City, it's illegal to discharge a weapon in city limits.
"It doesn't make sense that people, literally a mile down the street that are in incorporated Overland Park, have more rights to safety than we do here in Stilwell," Matthew Keys said. "It's baffling, and the bigger thing is, everyone we talk to thinks that there's laws in place, thinks that there's rules. Oh, surely a ticket or fine or something... Nothing, absolute nothing."
The Keyses want it to be illegal to fire a weapon within two miles of a school. Stilwell Elementary school is located a half-mile from their house.
"It makes me question the people that have let this slide this long," Matthew Keys said.
They also want the public and politicians to know this isn't a Second Amendment issue.
"This is about safety, this is not a pro- or anti-gun issue. This is a pro-safety issue," Katie Keys said. "I come from a long line of responsible gun owners, hunters, outdoorsmen, and we're friends with many, many people who do the same things and not one of them would fire an AK-47 in a direction of subdivision."
Matthew Keys said they don't want to infringe on anyone's rights who truly live out in the country.
"We want rural to stay rural," Matthew Keys said. "If you're out in the middle of nowhere, fire your weapon."
Too many close calls
The Keyses are not the only family impacted by stray bullets in unincorporated areas of Johnson County.
In June, 2021 a bullet landed through the skylight of another family's home in Stilwell.
In March, 2020, a child was nearly shot while riding in the back of her mother's SUV. The pair was driving near AGC Glass on North Webster Street when the stray bullet went through the SUV. The girl was leaning forward in her seat at the time. When she turned around, she found the bullet behind her.
Action could take years
In May, Kansas state Rep. Jo Ella Hoye (D-Lenexa) introduced legislation that would ban recreational discharge of a firearm in unincorporated areas of Johnson County within two miles of a school.
Passing legislation at the state level can take months or even years.
"When we continue to roll the dice, we're taking our chances that someone's not going to be killed," Katie Keys said. "In my mind, if we're afforded the luxury to prevent a tragedy before it strikes, why wouldn't we?"
Both the Keyses and Hayden agree there isn't time to wait.
Hayden told the KSHB 41 I-Team that county's legal department is working on a measure that would create "safe zones," similar to the idea of prohibiting recreational gun use within a certain distance of a school. This would allow for local control and for the district attorney to hold people accountable when the law isn't followed.
"What they’re trying to do is get something that’s got enough punishment behind it people will pay attention," Hayden said.
While it's been more than a year since the Keys' home was struck, the gunfire persists.
Ashley Hubert, who lives next door to the Keyses, told the I-Team she no longer allows her kids to play outside.
"I don’t know if my kids can go outside and be safe," Hubert said. " I don’t even know if they can be inside safe. [The Keys'] house was shot from outside to inside — that very clearly could’ve hit somebody that was in there."
Hubert said she's also frustrated that no one with authority has stepped in to resolve the issue.
"It’d be one thing if people were shooting out here illegally and we could call the sheriff and they can do something about it," Hubert said. "That’s not what’s happening out here."
While the Keyses and other families wait for a law that will offer them the same protections as neighboring towns, they want gun owners to shoot responsibly.
Digital storytelling produced by Hailey Godburn.