Kennesaw, Georgia, is Everytown, USA: a mixture of old wooden bungalows and cookie-cutter subdivisions, of seventh-generation locals and Mexican immigrants. Its quaint, cobbled historic centre is lush, with low-hanging trees and chirping cicadas. The civil war museum tells the history of the local Confederate fight against the Yankees. At the suburban malls on a humid Saturday afternoon locals vie to park their SUVs as close as possible to the Target and Best Buy outlets, and queue for tables at Chuck E. Cheese’s and Applebee’s.
But this city, half an hour’s drive north of Atlanta, is unique: it is the only place in America where it is compulsory to own a gun. In 1982, Kennesaw City Council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring households to own at least one firearm with ammunition. The law states that its purpose is to “protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants”. Kennesaw’s ordinance was a heartfelt assertion of second amendment gun rights, a principled and legislative rebuttal to a law passed earlier that year in Morton Grove, Illinois, banning guns within the city limits.
“It was official, but we were protesting as much as anything,” recalls Fred Bentley, a lawyer, who was already 56 when he wrote the ordinance. Looking every part the southern charmer in a grey suit and spotless white shirt topped with a gingham bow tie, Bentley keeps a loaded .38 revolver by his bed and two double-barrel shotguns from his hunting days. Otherwise his guns are decorative – a Brown Bess revolutionary-era musket stands by the door of his office.
Kennesaw residents were outraged not only by Morton Grove’s assault on the second amendment of the Constitution – which gives all Americans the right to bear arms – but also by “the slobbering way that the press portrayed the law as taking a stand against ‘evil’ handguns,” says Robert Jones, the president of the Kennesaw Historical Society and the owner of a .357 Magnum handgun. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged Kennesaw’s law as unconstitutional, but the federal court let it stand, although the city did add a clause exempting conscientious objectors, criminals, the mentally disabled and people who could not afford a gun.
Jones says: “In 1982 this was a rural community of about 5,000 people. The whole town was very conservative and about 95 per cent of people owned guns anyway, so it was a very symbolic law.” Indeed, the law contains no penalty for violation and no one has ever been prosecuted for not owning a gun. Local police estimate that only 50 per cent of households have a gun.
But almost 30 years after the law was passed, it is still in place and still popular, not least because Kennesaw’s crime rate has remained disproportionately low, even as the town’s population swelled from 5,000 in 1982 to almost 35,000 now. According to the latest FBI statistics, Kennesaw recorded 31 violent crimes – mainly robberies and aggravated assaults – during 2008. In other similar-sized local towns the figures were much higher – 127 in Dalton and 188 in Hinesville. For property crimes – largely burglaries and thefts – Kennesaw recorded 555 while Dalton had 1,124 and Hinesville 1,802.
“Firearms are involved in less than 2 per cent of the crime around here,” confirms Craig Graydon, a police lieutenant who has served in Kennesaw for 24 years. “If nothing else, [the firearms law] draws a lot of attention to the importance of crime prevention.” Though it will give liberals heartburn, Kennesaw’s gun policy works.
Every morning, 79-year-old Dent “Wildman” Myers, whose bushy beard tapers into a long grey dreadlock reaching below his navel, belts two loaded .45 semi-automatic pistols and four magazines of extra ammunition around his waist and heads to work. Myers, one of the strongest proponents of the gun law, owns Wildman’s Civil War Surplus, a Confederate-themed memorabilia shop that touts itself as “The Best Little War House in Kennesaw”. The stock includes books of “redneck poetry” and spent shells from the civil war, Third Reich-inspired rock CDs and bumper stickers reading “The United States is an Obamanation to the world”.
During the civil war, Kennesaw was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the south and HQ of the Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The influence shows. “If them Yankees up north say you can’t have a gun,” says Myers in an exaggerated southern drawl, toothpick dangling from his mouth, “we southerners are going to say you gotta have one.” The slogan on his T-shirt declares: “It’s the law in Kennesaw.”
While Myers might be on the fringe, it’s difficult to find anyone in Kennesaw who strongly disagrees with the gun ownership law. Residents recall a TV repair shop owner who years ago tried to have the law overturned, but no one can remember his name or when he left town. There are, however, plenty of gun agnostics who choose not to own a gun.
“It’s not enforced, it’s strictly psychological,” says John Grimm, 78, who works part-time in the gift shop of Kennesaw’s museum. The shop sells magnets, patches and coffee mugs sporting the Confederate flag alongside Confederate soldier caps for children and replica Confederate pistols ($89) and rifles ($189). While not complying with the law, agnostics benefit from its presence and are happy for it to stay. Grimm, who doesn’t have a gun, tells me: “If someone is going to rob you, they don’t know if you have got a gun or not, so they’re going to go somewhere else.”
The law may be anachronistic but, whether in Kennesaw or the wider area, guns are a touchstone issue. This is not just about gun rights, but about independence; it is about a desire to keep the government in check.
Nick DeMarco wasn’t even born when the law was introduced. But a love of guns is in his blood. “I grew up around guns, and I already have a .22 ready for my 10-week-old son,” says DeMarco, a 24-year-old with a round face and goatee beard, who describes gun ownership as “a ton of fun”.
As we talk, he pulls out his mobile phone to show me photos of his baby. “I’ll probably get him into BB guns [steel-pellet air guns] at three or four – I’ll get him a Red Ryder BB gun, that’s what I grew up with – and I’ll start taking him hunting with me too.” While many of his friends share his love of shooting, not everyone his age does. “A lot of kids are not getting into guns because they’re not being brought up that way. Some might believe in their right to bear arms and think that the government has too much control, but they might not exercise that right,” he says.
DeMarco believes that the world beyond Kennesaw is a violent place and that gun ownership offers a solution. “In Alpharetta, [a nearby town] it’s ridiculous,” he says. “I saw these kids jumping on the top of this nice Audi. You can’t shoot them, of course, but you sure could scare them. The way the world is going, with all the violence and crime, if you don’t carry a gun, you’re more susceptible to being a victim.”
Eavesdropping on our conversation in the sports shop where DeMarco works is Alex Payne, a 38-year-old machinist who lives just outside Kennesaw. He has a cherubic face and long wavy hair, but he turns out to be anything but a hippy. He shows me the belt holding up his camouflage shorts – its brass buckle reads “Amendment II: The right to bear arms” – and proceeds to hold forth on why gun rights are so important to him.
“To me, owning a gun means you’re not just being an American, but that you’re upholding the Constitution. So when that right is being infringed, when someone tries to take it away, it’s like they are trying to take away your freedom of speech. Imagine if someone told you right now that you couldn’t take notes,” he said, pointing at my notebook.
Payne has just introduced his daughter to BB guns, he says, putting his arm around a blonde 10-year-old in a pink T-shirt. “It’s really fun,” she says. “She started this year and I hope to have him start soon too,” says Payne, pointing to his eight-year-old son.
When I ask how many guns he owns, he responds sharply: “That’s none of your business.” This secrecy is common in the town, and is part of a general wariness towards government. Payne says: “Our Founding Fathers thought it was important enough to make this the second amendment so that we could protect ourselves from invaders in our country. And they knew that citizens needed to be protected from being taken over by the government.”
These words, puzzling to outsiders, reflect deep-seated beliefs, stretching back to the American Revolution and reinforced (especially in the southern US) during the civil war. As Robert Jones says: “People in the US are much more in touch with their Founding Fathers in a way that is not true in England. How many English people sit around reminiscing about Oliver Cromwell or praising the Magna Carta? In Red America, people sit around talking about the Founding Fathers. They look at Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp, and say ‘Don’t tread on me.’”
Such sentiments have been charismatically personified over the past two years by Sarah Palin, darling of the conservative right and a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Palin, a self-proclaimed “mama grizzlie” who shoots moose and caribou for sport, has fiercely defended second amendment rights and fuelled the fear, bordering on hysteria, that they will be taken away.
During a speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA) in May, Palin said the only thing stopping President Obama from scrapping the Constitution’s right to bear arms was fear of a public backlash. “Don’t doubt for a minute that, if they thought they could get away with it, they would ban guns and ban ammunition and gut the second amendment,” she said, urging the 9,000 NRA members at the conference to “stop them in their tracks”. In her fight against Democrats and big government, she has even adopted a gun-themed slogan: “Don’t retreat. Reload!”
For many here, Palin embodies the spirit of independence and self-reliance they admire so much. She even hails from the frontier state of Alaska. Her words certainly strike a chord with Johnny Wilson, who doesn’t let the fact that he is legally blind stop him from shooting as a hobby. “I buy guns like other people buy golf clubs,” chuckles 58-year-old Wilson, who owns more than half-a-dozen handguns, including two Colts, a Glock 17 and a Smith & Wesson PPK/S.
“Sarah Palin is certainly someone who can bring the community together,” he says, buying ammunition with his son, Gedde, at Nick’s Guns and Range in a mall in Kennesaw. “Those liberals just scare me to death. Not to be redneck about it or anything, but those tree-huggers don’t see anything good in the outdoors, all they see is the killing and the guns.” Wilson has been stocking up on weapons and ammo out of fear that Democrats will retain control of the House and Senate after the November mid-term elections.
“Let’s just hope that in November the Republicans take back Congress because if those other guys get in for two more years, we’re in trouble,” he says. Although he admits the Obama administration has not signalled that it plans to tinker with gun rights – in fact, the president has barely even mentioned the hot-potato issue – Wilson believes in a secret plot to scrap the second amendment. “We just don’t know what those politicians are up to.”
Nick’s Guns – with more than 300 weapons in stock, from tiny pink pistols to huge black assault rifles – has been doing brisk trade since Obama was elected. The store manager is Erik Fredricks, a skinny 37-year-old who wears a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver on his hip. “We were doing about three or three-and-a-half times our normal business from the day after the election right through to mid-April. It was absolute insanity. The shelves were going bare because the manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand.
“A lot of it was a knee-jerk reaction because of the assault weapon ban in the early 1990s after President Clinton came in. A lot of people thought something like that was going to happen again,” he explains. “But over the past few years in general, there has been a huge influx of all sorts of shooters and a lot more people getting concealed carry permits and coming in for handguns.”
Fredricks has been at the shop for four years and tells me that during that time no one has bought a gun specifically to comply with the Kennesaw law. They just like to buy guns.
So what sort of handgun would he recommend for me, for self-defence? He gives me a very light $319 black Kel-Tec semi-automatic pistol, which fits into my hand. “But I tend to start women on a larger gun because it doesn’t recoil so much and is easy to handle,” he says, handing me a $700 Smith & Wesson revolver. It is much heavier and feels sturdier.
Perhaps sensing the liberal shiver going down my spine, he offers to give me a test drive. But the trainer is out and the firing range at the back of the shop is busy. I spot groups of women in purple earmuffs, and fathers and sons lining up in the 10 alleys to shoot bullets into posters of deranged zombies called Bob and Steve. I am relieved: while I am game to try shooting, I am afraid I might enjoy it.
“Guns are a huge part of American culture,” says Fredricks. “When America was a frontier country, you needed your gun to put food on the table. Whenever you hear Americans talking about guns, they talk about independence and self-reliance. The second amendment is somewhat unique because it places the ultimate option for use of force in the hands of the citizen and not on the state.”
Danyell Teets is not as ideological as her boss; she just likes to shoot for fun. In the shooting range at the back of Nick’s Guns, where the air is thick with gunpowder and concentration, Teets lines up her 9mm Sig P225 pistol and shoots into the target. Bang, bang, bang, all into the couple of circles closest to the bull’s eye. In tight jeans, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Teets, 23, graduated as an elementary school teacher in December and has been working at Nick’s Guns while looking for a teaching position – something that could take a while in the current economic climate. “I’m always apprehensive about telling people, especially in the school system, that my other job is in a gun store,” she says.
Teets owns two guns – she was tired of her Sig weighing down her bag, so she bought a smaller .380 model. She generally keeps one of her guns with her or in her car, “unless I’m going to school”. She tells me, “I have never had to draw it, but I did have an awkward situation a few weeks ago when I was being followed home and I didn’t have my gun on me. I was really nervous. I would always rather be safe than sorry.”
She was brought up with guns: “My dad was in the Marine Corps so I was always around guns. When I was six or seven, he took me on a hunting safety course, and I’ve been shooting with him ever since. Now I don’t shoot as much as I used to because of this job. By closing time I’m done. But before I started working here, my boyfriend and I used to come down to the range every Sunday. That was our thing.”
Regardless of whether other towns adopt Kennesaw-style laws, the reassertion of gun rights in the Obama era, along with a Palin run for president in 2012, will ensure that the second amendment remains on the political agenda.
And here in the south a new generation of gun-owners is ready to continue the tradition. As Teets says: “I am always going to have a firearm. And I am going to teach my children – when I have them – to shoot. I was raised that way and I want my children to be raised that way.”
Anna Fifield is US political correspondent for the FT
Her last piece for the magazine was on Iranian women. You can read it at www.ft.com/iranianwomen