Published December 20, 2015
The city council in a small north Georgia town voted Monday night to make gun ownership mandatory -- unless you object.
Council members in Nelson, a city of about 1,300 residents that's located 50 miles north of Atlanta, voted unanimously to approve the Family Protection Ordinance. The measure requires 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."
Not that every household must go out and purchase a firearm.
The ordinance exempts convicted felons and those who suffer from certain physical or mental disabilities, as well as anyone who objects to gun ownership. The ordinance also doesn't include any penalty for those who don't comply.
But backers said they wanted to make a statement about gun rights at a time when President Barack Obama and some states are pushing for more restrictions in the wake of the Connecticut elementary school massacre in December that left 20 children and six educators dead.
Councilman Duane Cronic, who sponsored the measure, said he knows the ordinance won't be enforced but he still believes it will make the town safer.
"I likened it to a security sign that people put up in their front yards. Some people have security systems, some people don't, but they put those signs up," he said. "I really felt like this ordinance was a security sign for our city. Basically it was a deterrent ordinance to tell potential criminals they might want to go on down the road a little bit."
The city council's agenda says another purpose of the measure is "opposition of any future attempt by the federal government to confiscate personal firearms."
Nelson resident Lamar Kellett was one of five people who spoke during a public comment period and one of two who opposed the ordinance. Among his many objections, he said it dilutes the city's laws to pass measures that aren't intended to be enforced.
"Does this mean now 55 miles an hour speed limit means 65, 80, whatever you choose? There's not a whole lot of difference. A law's a law," he said.
Kellett also said the ordinance will have no effect, that it won't encourage people like him who don't want a gun to go out and buy one.
The proposal illustrates how the response to the Newtown, Conn., massacre varies widely in different parts of the country.
While lawmakers in generally more liberal states with large urban centers like New York and California 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 worried 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. South Dakota 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. While the town used to have an internally driven economy, just about everyone leaves town for work now, making it a bedroom community for Atlanta, Haviland said.
The mayor said he never dreamed his small city would be the focus of national and international media attention, but he understands it.
"It bumps up against the national issues on guns," he 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 2012 Republican nomination for president. 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 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.
Police Chief Heath Mitchell noted that the city doesn't have police officers who work 24 hours a day and 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. So having a gun would 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.
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 exemptions, but he prefers it to be voluntary, he said. He said before the council's decision that he'd rather see the measure put to a popular vote instead.
"Really, I think it would be more fair to put it to a vote" so everybody could have a say, he said.
The town has gotten an enormous amount of media attention since the council began discussing the ordinance last month. Councilman Jackie 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 exemptions, 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 though the ordinance is set to go into effect in 10 days.
"Most everybody around here's got guns anyway," Jarrett said.