There is no reason to doubt the motives behind the city of Nelson’s new requirement that the head of every household in the tiny community must own a gun. Unless that head of household doesn’t want to.
Even as city officials admitted that theirs was no more than a “paper” ordinance, they said the measure would send a message to a Washington that – in some minds — will soon demand the combinations to their gun safes.
The new statute, city fathers and mothers said, would also serve as a warning to evil-doers who might think the small town an easy mark.
Granted, these villains might otherwise never have known that the stalwart enclave of Nelson was standing against them. But thanks to newspaper articles and TV reports across the country and around the globe, everyone – good and bad alike — now knows how to find this knot of 1,300 people on the border of Cherokee and Pickens counties, some 54 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Which, if not the reason for Nelson’s gun law, may certainly be the happy result. The city’s ordinance is a duplicate of the one passed by Kennesaw in 1982. And that’s what happened there.
Disregard any claims you hear that Kennesaw’s gun law was responsible for an immediate and permanent decline in crime. There are no cold, hard statistics to back this up. None.
But there is near universal agreement that the ordinance became an arrow in Kennesaw’s economic development quiver, raising the city’s profile – it was then just a city of 7,000 — just as a wave of enormous growth struck Cobb County. Before the city’s gun law, we had to explain where Kennesaw was. Afterwards, we didn’t.
Thirty-one years ago, I was in Mayor Darvin Purdy’s office on the day after the Kennesaw City Council adopted the ordinance – a response to a decision by the city of Morton Grove, Ill., to ban possession of handguns.
I was a much bigger deal at the newspaper then. I know this because I sported a briefcase, which I promptly left in the mayor’s office. Rather than giving it back, the mayor appropriated the leather case for an extraordinary trip to Chicago, where he appeared on an afternoon talk show hosted by Phil Donahue – that day’s white male version of Oprah.
I held no grudge. When the mayor finally returned the case, he’d neglected to remove his income tax return, for which I was exceedingly grateful. And stunned, too. As an attorney, Purdy was making less than a junior reporter.
There was no money to be made in Kennesaw then – a situation that has changed dramatically, recent years excepted.
Nelson’s gun law has an ancestor even older than Kennesaw – just up I-75, across the Tennessee border.
Back in 1925, the city fathers of Dayton, Tenn., decided that a show trial might improve the local economy. They organized the prosecution of a local high school teacher – with John Scope’s permission and cooperation – under a supposedly symbolic law just passed by the Tennessee legislature, banning the teaching of evolution.
“Dayton decided this was a great way to get their town on the map. Not that there was a lot of opposition to it, but it was viewed as a way to get publicity,” said Edward Larson, a former University of Georgia professor whose “Summer for the Gods,” a 1997 account of the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” won a Pulitzer Prize.
“What the Dayton people thought was, ‘There might be people who agree with us, and they might move their factories and businesses here,’” said Larson, now a professor at Pepperdine University Law School in California.
“That can easily happen in a small town that has little to lose – really, nothing to lose – and everything to gain,” Larson said. “It’s not like Atlanta, which might face a boycott by certain people, and industry might object.”
In the end, Dayton benefited from the Scopes trial. Bryan College, a Christian institution established afterwards and named for the celebrity prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, helped the community survive until it could be wrapped into metro Chattanooga.
Though less premeditated, as a piece of political theater, Kennesaw’s 1982 gun law improved on Dayton’s example by doing away with expensive courtroom overhead. After stewing over the handgun ban in Illinois, Mayor Purdy – a member of the John Birch Society — instructed his city attorney, Fred “Bow-Tie” Bentley Sr., to write a counter ordinance to require ownership of firearms.
The genius of the Kennesaw law was that it was filled with so many exceptions that it never actually applied to anyone. Bentley Sr.’s clerk, Fred Bentley Jr., a third-year Emory University law student, was in charge of devising the holes in the gun ordinance.
Bentley Jr. was partly inspired by a Vietnam conflict that had only recently ended. “There are lots of things that have conscientious exemption status, even service in the military,” noted Bentley Jr., now a full, middle-aged member of the family firm.
Two federal lawsuits were filed. Both were dismissed, and Kennesaw was allowed to enjoy the spotlight undisturbed.
There are some in Nelson who seem to understand the possible side benefits of the new gun law – however unintended they may be. Prior to the vote by the Nelson City Council, Police Chief B. Heath Mitchell told his bosses that, based on Kennesaw’s experience, the measure couldn’t hurt, and might help.
“This ordinance being passed is nothing but good. You can only go up with it,” Mitchell said.