ATLANTA — The people of Nelson, Ga., want the world to know they have guns. Lots of ’em.
Monday night, this city of 1,300 people on the border of Cherokee and Pickens counties made it law that the head of every household must own a gun and bullets.
With that unanimous vote, the City Council thrust Nelson into one of the most contentious debates gripping America — and onto the international news scene. During the run-up to the vote, City Hall fielded media requests from as far away as Germany.
The fascination: Whereas some cities have pushed for greater gun restrictions following the killing of 26 students and staff in a Connecticut school, Nelson chose to stand up for the Second Amendment.
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“We’re making a statement,” said City Council member Jackie Jarrett. “If you plan on doing us harm, we’ll be armed.” Or not. Because the “Family Protection Ordinance,” grants exceptions for, well, anybody who doesn’t want to follow it.
In addition to convicted felons, the loophole covers people who are mentally or physically impaired as well as “paupers or who conscientiously oppose maintaining firearms as a result of beliefs or religious doctrine.” The law echoes a similar one adopted in the 1980s in Kennesaw, Ga., which supporters say has kept criminals at bay.
Acknowledging that the city has no plans to enforce the law, Councilman Duane Cronic said it will still serve as a deterrent to crime. He compared the impact to homes that sport a sign saying there’s a security system, even when there may be none.
“This is like a big security sign for our city,” Cronic said.
Council members say the measure has been warmly endorsed by the community. Even so, some residents at Monday’s meeting — attended by about 30 people, among the largest crowds in recent memory — spoke against it.
“The ordinance is unnecessary. We have no violent crime,” said Lamar Kellett, 76. To him, the council’s action is nothing more than big government trying to impose its will on the people.
Before guns, Nelson built its reputation on marble. The area’s marble deposits supported a thriving industry in the late 1800s, and marble from these parts graces the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol and the New York Stock Exchange.
But that industry has flagged. The city now has only a handful of businesses. City Hall closes for lunch. One agenda item at Monday’s meeting was to sell an old red dump truck.
The gun law was the brainchild of Bill McNiff, a member of the Canton Tea Party. He emailed a copy of the Kennesaw law to his neighbor, Cronic, who passed it on to his colleague on the council, Jarrett.
Jarrett said he responded, “If you present it, I’ll back you.”
Since then, the council members have been beset by requests from media. Jarrett has talked on the phone with a reporter from the United Kingdom. McNiff said he talked to Fox News but turned down an invitation from CNN’s Piers Morgan.
Cronic, a math teacher at Pickens High School, said he’s received emails for and against the law.
“We’re getting emails saying you are like rednecks,” Cronic said. “I feel like I’m doing what Nelson citizens want.”
At Monday’s meeting, which drew a handful of news stations, Charles Jones, 73, said he didn’t bring a weapon when he moved to Nelson.
“If I thought I’d need a gun here, I wouldn’t have moved here,” Jones said. He added later, “I don’t like more laws on the books that they’re not going to enforce.” But Police Chief B. Heath Mitchell, who endorsed the law, pointed out that he’s the city’s only officer, and he only works eight hours a day. The rest of the time, the city relies on the county police from Cherokee and Pickens.
“We’re at the far end of each county,” Mitchell said, and that can affect response times.
He said most people here already own guns, and they’re good, law-abiding folks.
“We’re quieter than Mayberry,” he said.
Jarrett agrees, but he worries about the future.
“Crime is moving on up the road,” he said. “Subdivisions are opening up, and we don’t know who those people are.”