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Kennesaw, where guns have ruled the roost for 42 years

Photo: Sébastien Tanguay Le Devoir “We have one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the United States,” says current mayor, Derek Easterling. If you're a felon and you come to Kennesaw, you know that every household has a gun. Are you going to take that risk ? I bet you'll probably think twice about it. »

Sébastien Tanguay in Kennesaw, Georgia

April 6, 2024

  • United States

Kennesaw, a small college town in Georgia full of flowering trees and immaculately grassed parks, is not a Wild West town. Here, however, guns have literally ruled the roost for 42 years.

There was a time when, if you ran a red light in this town on the outskirts of Atlanta, it was usual to hear the police, when giving you your ticket, you ask an unusual question.

“Do you own a gun?”

The problems started if you answered no. In Kennesaw, gun ownership is not an option: it is a requirement.

The City passed an ordinance in 1982 that requires every head of household to own a firearm and ammunition in the name of “the protection, safety and welfare of the City.” » This was a first in the United States, contrasting with the City of Morton Grove, Illinois, which had banned handguns in its territory a year earlier.

The Kennesaw settlement, adopted unanimously 42 years ago, is still in force today and gives this town located about forty kilometers northwest of Atlanta the status symbol in the corrosive gun debate that has divided the United States for decades.

“We are the village that proves that more guns do not mean more crime,” summed up Mayor J.O. Stephenson in 1987, his .38 caliber pistol at his belt.

“We are not going to knock on doors”

Today, Kennesaw, which has seen its population increase sixfold from 5,000 to more than 33,000 people since the law was passed, is one of the safest cities in Georgia and the nation — with a violent crime rate 65% lower than the national average, according to the FBI.

“We have one of the lowest rates of gun violence in the United States,” says current Mayor Derek Easterling. If you're a felon and you come to Kennesaw, you know that every household has a gun. Are you going to take that risk ? I bet you'll probably think twice about it. »

During the passage of Duty, in late March, the community was recovering from the murder of a 21-year-old man in a shooting two weeks earlier. According to local police, it was the first homicide to rock the city since 2019 and only the third to occur in the last 10 years.

The mayor, far from being an all-out supporter of the Second Amendment, refuses to believe that these enviable statistics are based solely on the law. As proof: the City does not hide its laxity towards the regulations that made it famous.

“We’re not going to knock on doors and ask people if they have a gun,” says Easterling. No one has ever had to pay fines under this regulation. »

The ordinance provides for several detours that make it possible to circumvent the obligation to own a rifle. Conscientious objectors are entitled to an exemption — as are those who simply cannot afford a weapon.

“My husband has a gun for fun, I don’t,” says Sharon Altomare, owner of a family flower shop that has been operating since 1988 in Kennesaw. Without sharing the love of weapons of a large part of Americans, she also does not condemn her city and the ordinance that made it famous.

“I am neither for nor against, because the regulation does not change anything,” she explains. No one can force anyone to have a weapon, that would be against our rights. »

Kennesaw beyond its law

Despite its overtly gun-friendly culture, Kennesaw is not a western village. Its neat streets lined with cherry blossoms, its city center of sparkling brick buildings, its parks with sports fields, skatepark and the largest inclusive playground of Georgia: everything evokes the strong community spirit that animates the city.

This bouquet of services becomes possible thanks to a tax of one cent levied on each transaction carried out in the region. “It represents a lot of money at the end of the year,” says the mayor. This drain contributed, among other things, to the construction of the recreational center and the open-air amphitheater that Kennesaw is preparing to inaugurate in its city center. Bill for the two projects: 11 and 6 million US dollars, two fortunes for this city of 33,000 people which is, however, swimming in surplus.

Derek Easterling, too, has little in common with the typical saloon sheriff: a former Navy submariner, he completed a 26-year career in the Army with the rank of lieutenant and several medals hanging on his uniform. He now teaches in an elementary school in Kennesaw alongside his political work. This 60-year-old mayor also has a passion for skate: in a corner of his office, at city hall, there is his board, signed by the legendary Tony Hawk, who catches the eye.

“It’s not the Wild Wild West here,” he emphasizes straight away. People who come quickly discover that Kennesaw is not just “the town with the gun laws.” Rather, they see a community that is paving the way for its future. »

Favourable to tighter controls

Kennesaw has long celebrated its gun culture, but faced with the increase in school shootings, its mayor, himself a teacher, is repulsed by the position of gun fanatics who demand deregulation in all directions in the name of the Second Amendment.

“These shootings are one of the saddest things in this country,” laments Derek Easterling. We are a first and foremost conservative community here and I believe the process of acquiring a gun should be easy and well-oiled. On the other hand, I also believe that research must be done on the person who obtains a firearm. We have to filter these people. »

“Owners who have a permit and who respect the rules are not the ones who shoot their neighbors,” says florist Sharon Altomare among her orchids and the floral aromas that perfume her shop. To tell you the truth, the rules don't bother me that much – but I definitely prefer the smell of my flowers to that of gunpowder. »

This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir.< International Journalism Fund /i>

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116