KENNESAW, Georgia (Reuters) - The Virginia Tech killings have set off calls for tighter U.S. gun laws but anyone wanting to know why those demands likely will make little headway should visit Kennesaw, a town where owning a gun is both popular and mandatory.
The town north of Atlanta had little prominence until it passed a gun ordinance in 1982 that required all heads of a household to own a firearm and ammunition.
Kennesaw’s law was a response to Morton Grove, Illinois, which had passed a gun ban earlier that year as a step to reduce crime.
But it also was an affirmation of what gun advocates say is a blanket U.S. constitutional right, under the Second Amendment, for citizens to keep and bear arms. Gun opponents challenge that right and say the language in the Constitution is open to interpretation.
The Kennesaw law has endured as the town’s population has swelled to about 30,000 from 5,000 in 1982.
“When the law was passed in 1982 there was a substantial drop in crime ... and we have maintained a really low crime rate since then,” said police Lt. Craig Graydon. “We are sure it is one of the lowest (crime) towns in the metro area.
Residents say they are comfortable with the image the gun law projects on the city as a bastion of gun freedom.
“There’s been no move to get rid of the law. Why would you?” said Robert Jones, president of the Kennesaw Historical Society. “The law is a great tourist attraction. It’s the town with the Gun Law.
“People in Europe feel they need to be protected by the government. People in the U.S. feel they need to be protected from the government,” said Jones, the owner of a .357-caliber Magnum.
Many U.S. citizens see gun ownership as an essential freedom on a par with free speech and the view is particularly strong in rural areas and the South where sport hunting is often a family tradition.
In a bid to expand gun rights, a bill was introduced in Georgia’s state legislature to allow individuals with no criminal record or history of mental illness to conceal a weapon in their car.
The state Senate adjourned debate on the bill on Tuesday, fearing it would send the wrong message in the wake of the Virginia rampage.
Dent “Wildman” Myers, 76, styles himself as a keeper of the flame when it comes to Kennesaw’s gun ordinance. His downtown shop contains a cornucopia of artifacts, including old uniforms and dozens of flags of the Confederacy that fought the Union in part in defense of slavery in the Civil War. At the back is a Ku Klux Klan outfit with a noose and a hood.
There also are posters praising defenders of the white race, White Power CDs and a sign that reads: “No Dogs Allowed, No Negroes, No Mexicans.” Someone had crossed out the first part of the sign and added “Dogs Allowed.”
Myers said he wanted to protect the values that made the town and the South distinct from other parts of the United States.
“They destroyed anything historic and replaced it with the PC (politically correct) stuff. It’s become a cookie cutter town,” Myers said, his hands resting lightly on two .45-caliber guns at his hips. He said he considered his guns to be tools, much like a rake or a shovel.
Since the Virginia Tech shootings, some conservative U.S. talk radio hosts have rejected attempts to link the massacre to the availability of guns, arguing that had students been allowed to carry weapons on campus someone might have been able to shoot the killer.
Without guns the students of Virginia Tech were “26,000 sitting ducks,” said Chris Krok of Atlanta’s WSB radio in a view echoed by many residents of Kennesaw.
When the town’s gun law was passed, about 70 percent of households likely owned a gun, Graydon said. But Atlanta commuters have since swelled the town’s population and gun ownership now is about 50 percent.
An amendment to the gun ownership law grants exceptions to convicted felons, conscientious objectors and those who cannot afford a gun. No one has ever been prosecuted for failure to own a firearm, Graydon said.
The law may deter criminals but proactive policing and close police liaison with community and business groups were the main reasons why crime has stayed low, he said.
Some residents said they found the law objectionable or silly and simply ignored it.
But Linda Warman, who works in a Kennesaw shop, said she lived alone and was taking no chances.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to use it,” she said of the gun she keeps loaded with hollow-point bullets. “My little .22. It’ll do whatever I want it to.”
Additional reporting by Nahed Eltantawy