Kennesaw, Georgia, is a quiet Atlanta suburb of newer subdivisions and strip malls around a huddle of older homes and storefronts. It is asking churches to ring their bells 26 times today for the victims of last week’s elementary school massacre in Connecticut.
And it has no plans to change a law requiring residents to own guns.
No town in the U.S. has been as public about its support for guns as Kennesaw, population about 30,000, where city leaders for 30 years have required that every household have at least one gun. The Dec. 14 killings of 20 children and six adults, the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, has done little to change that, residents say in interviews.
Most called President Barack Obama’s push to tighten gun restrictions worrisome at best and a conspiracy at worst, exemplifying resistance to such controls in the South.
“They’re trying to confiscate our guns,” said Dent Myers, 81, who wore a pistol on his hip and a red beret at his Wildman’s Civil War Surplus and Herb Shop. The store, draped in Confederate flags, is the most prominent business in Kennesaw’s two-block downtown.
On a sidewalk nearby, Andy Crowe, 46, said he welcomed a national conversation on guns, as long as it’s nuanced and respects those who own and use guns responsibly.
“What I would have a problem with is enacting a law just for the sake of saying you’re doing something,” said Crowe, an author, deer hunter and father of three. He said some bans being talked about would forbid his own deer rifle.
“If I woke up and found out a gun I manufactured had been used to slaughter children, I’d stop making it,” he said. “But what makes that gun different than my deer rifle? I’ve thought about that. The difference isn’t much.”
The state of Georgia allows citizens to carry guns openly as long as they hold permits, in a region where guns have long been prized and firearms are part of the culture, Crowe said.
“It’s ingrained in us,” he said. “It’s about responsibility as much as anything and I am passing that on to my kids.”
Kennesaw, about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta, had about 5,000 people when its City Council adopted an ordinance requiring heads of households to own a gun and enough ammunition to use it, said police Lieutenant Craig Graydon, 47, who’s fielded questions about the law for 26 years.
The 1982 law was a symbolic rebuke to the village of Morton Grove, Illinois, the first community to ban the sale and possession of handguns. Kennesaw’s ordinance had little effect on a rural community where most people already owned firearms, Graydon said. It was also unenforceable on its face. Anyone who says they are morally opposed to guns is exempt. So is anyone who can’t afford to buy one.
The law drew international ridicule. After every mass shooting in the U.S., Graydon explains the law again to reporters from Germany, Britain, Japan and other countries, he said. Kennesaw was repeatedly portrayed as a frontier town with armed citizens prowling the streets, he said.
“There’s sort of a Wild West image of us,” he said. “It’s just not true.”
Gun-rights advocates extolled the law as proof that more arms increase safety, crediting it with Kennesaw’s relatively low crime rate and a drop in burglaries after it took effect.
That image of Kennesaw is also exaggerated, said Graydon. He credits police work and community cooperation with achieving a crime rate that compares well with the city’s neighbors. He also debunked an oft-repeated claim that the community has had no homicides in 30 years. It’s had nine, fewer than half involving guns, he said.
Graydon estimates about 50 percent of Kennesaw owns guns today, and that many residents don’t know the law exists.
“We’re a typical suburban town,” he said.
Myers, who owns the surplus store, has been the law’s chief proselytizer.
In an inventory that includes shirts honoring the Ku Klux Klan and racist bumper stickers, he says his best seller is a T-Shirt displaying two crossed pistols and the motto, “It’s the law in Kennesaw.”
Pamphlets at the front counter trumpet “The Law Heard ’Round the World.” For years, Wildman’s sold honorary Kennesaw citizenship certificates to outsiders. Myers said the proceeds went to help Kennesaw’s poor buy ammunition.
Others in the city, though less passionate, said they had no problem with the gun law.
“It always raises a lot of eyebrows, but it was a statement more than anything,” Crowe said. “It not only did not turn out to be the Wild West here, it’s a wonderful place to live. The crime rate is low. The rate of crimes with guns is very low.”
Around the corner from Wildman’s, the owner of Big Shanty Barber Shop endorses the law and said she opposes federal efforts to restrict guns.
“It’s been good for the city, other than people laughing at us,” Shannan Smith, 42, said of the ordinance.
Smith said she carries a gun “because I own a business.” She said she stood in line for an hour this week to renew her permit to carry it in public. Smith said the line for permits was long because people are afraid of what Congress will do after the latest school shooting.
“They need to work on mental illness, which is the real problem,” she said, drawing nods from John Norton, 82, who sat in her chair, and three men waiting their turn.
A few blocks away, businesswoman Holly Jones, 49, also carries a gun. She’s been warming to gun control despite that, she said. Jones urged her daughters, 18 and 25, to avoid movies after the July theater killings in Aurora, Colorado, and is now afraid when her youngest goes to school.
After last week’s shooting, “I just cried all day,” she said as she painted flowers on a recycled wine bottle at her Painted Butterfly folk-art shop.
“I see both sides,” she said. “There’s the right to protect oneself, sure. I also see what the world is coming to. I really do think it’s come to the point where we need gun control. I just think the pros and cons don’t balance out anymore.”