Tuesday April 2, 2013

NELSON, Ga. -- The city council in a small north Georgia town is preparing to make gun ownership mandatory -- sort of.

City council members in Nelson, a city of about 1,300 located 50 miles north of Atlanta, are set to vote Monday night on the Family Protection Ordinance.

The measure would require every head of household to own a gun and ammunition to "provide for the emergency management of the city" and to "provide for and protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants."

But the ordinance, which comes amid a national debate about gun control following the Connecticut elementary school massacre that left 20 children and six educators dead, has loopholes that largely make the measure symbolic. It would exempt convicted felons and those who suffer from certain physical or mental disabilities, as well as anyone who objects to gun ownership. The ordinance doesn’t include any penalty for those who don’t comply.

Still, city council members who back the measure say it makes statement on the constitutional right to own a gun and as a warning to anyone who might come to Nelson to cause trouble.

"We’re just saying, if you mean to do us harm, we’re going to be armed," said Councilman Jackie Jarrett, who expects the ordinance to pass.

The proposal illustrates how the response to the Newtown, Conn., massacre varies widely in different parts of the country.


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While generally more liberal states with large urban centers like New York and California lawmakers have moved to tighten gun control laws, more conservative, rural areas in the American heartland have been going in the opposite direction, seeking to loosen restrictions, arm educators or even require gun ownership.

Among the other efforts to broaden gun rights that have surfaced since the Newtown killings:

-- Earlier Monday, lawmakers in Oklahoma scuttled a bill that would have allowed public school districts to decide whether to let teachers be armed.

-- Spring City, Utah, passed an ordinance this year recommending that residents keep firearms, softening an initial proposal that aimed to require it.

-- Residents of tiny Byron, Maine, rejected a proposal last month that would have required a gun in every home. Even some who initially supported the measure said it should have recommended gun ownership instead of requiring it, and rued that the proposal had made the community a laughingstock. Selectmen of another Maine town, Sabbatus, threw out a similar measure. The state’s attorney general said state law prevents municipalities from passing their own firearms laws anyway.

-- Lawmakers in about two dozen states have considered making it easier for school employees or volunteers to carry guns on campus, including South Dakota, which passed such a measure last month. Individual communities from New Jersey to Colorado have voted to allow administrators or teachers to carry guns in school.

Located in the Appalachian foothills, Nelson is a tiny, hilly town with narrow, twisting roads. It’s a place where most people know one another and leave their doors unlocked.

It used to be a major source of marble, with the local marble company employing many in town. But that industry is mostly gone now, Mayor Mike Haviland said. There are no retail stores in town anymore, and people do their shopping elsewhere. Just about everyone leaves town for work now, making it a bedroom community for Atlanta, Haviland said.

Nelson resident Lawrence Cooper and his wife, Nanette, sat on their front porch Monday morning, enjoying a pleasant breeze and listening to the radio show of conservative Herman Cain, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president last year. The Coopers support the ordinance.

"It’s supporting gun rights flat out, and there is so much -- not antipathy -- but antagonism against gun ownership these days," Lawrence Cooper said. "And this is a very conservative small town, and they are fully in support of this."

The couple doesn’t own any guns, but 52-year-old resident Lawrence Cooper said he grew up with them, and this ordinance might inspire him to go out and buy one. He chuckled as he pulled out a small black-and-white photo from his wallet. It shows him at 3 years of age, in front of a rack of hunting rifles and shotguns.

In addition to making a statement about gun ownership, backers say, the ordinance is about safety. The city doesn’t have police officers who work 24 hours a day, and the city is far from the two sheriff’s offices that might send deputies in case of trouble, so response times to emergency calls can be long, said police Chief Heath Mitchell. So having a gun could help residents take their protection into their own hands, he said.

But the chief -- the town’s sole police officer -- acknowledged the crime rate is very low. He mostly sees minor property thefts and a burglary every few months. The most recent homicide was more than five years ago, he said.

The proposed ordinance is modeled after a similar one adopted in 1982 by Kennesaw, an Atlanta suburb. City officials there worried at the time that growth in nearby Atlanta might bring crime to the community, which now has about 30,000 residents. Kennesaw police have acknowledged that their ordinance is difficult to enforce, and they haven’t made any attempt to do so.

Opponents of the ordinance are difficult to find in town.

Leroy Blackwell, 82, has lived in Nelson for about 50 years and owns a hunting rifle that he keeps in a closet. He’d support the ordinance even if it didn’t have exceptions, but he prefers it to be voluntary, he said. He’d also rather see it put to a popular vote rather than a city council decision.

"Really, I think it would be more fair to put it to a vote" so everybody could have a say, he said.

As for all the media attention since the council began discussing the ordinance last month. Jarrett said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of the concerns have been raised by people worried about the mentally ill or convicted felons being required to own a gun, but he’s quick to point to the proposed exceptions, he said.

Mostly, he’s amazed that anyone outside of Nelson cares about the ordinance.

"It really has surprised me that we’ve gotten so much attention, especially since this isn’t affecting the world," he said. "It’s just a small town thing."

And, as it turns out, it may not affect Nelson all that much, even if it passes.

"Most everybody around here’s got guns anyway," Jarrett said.