The town where gun ownership is the law

Welcome to Kennesaw, the Georgia hamlet that welcomes you—and your Colt .45 —with open arms
Matt Kwong
Hardline gun-lover: Dent ‘Wildman’ Myers cleans one of his Colt .45 revolvers in Kennesaw, Ga. (Photograph by Matt Kwong)

Gun control carries a double meaning in Kennesaw, Ga., a Southern hamlet where the mayor leaves his door unlocked, rocking chairs creak on pretty porches and locals enjoy the most fearsome gun laws in America.“You break into a house in Kennesaw, you might just end your life,” muses Lamar Cato, a regular at the Big Shanty barbershop on the city’s Main Street. “I know my rights. I use the motto, ‘shoot now, ask questions later.’ ”

Paradoxically, freedom-loving Second Amendment absolutists around town—the same folks who bemoan losing their civil liberties—also applaud Kennesaw’s unusual firearms regulations. Authorities don’t just expect residents to own guns. Legally, they demand it.

“Yes, sir, it’s the law,” says Fred Bentley, the 86-year-old lawyer who, in 1982, drafted the popular bill requiring all heads of household in the Atlanta suburb to pack a firearm with ammunition. “I got my 30-06 rifle, my double-barrelled shotgun, my six-shot revolver. We haven’t been robbed one single time, and we’ve been here 50 years.”

Supporters of the firearms mandate credit it for a 29 per cent drop in crime over 31 years, even as Kennesaw’s population grew to 33,000 residents from about 5,000 in the 1980s.“People are more aware we have this law on the books, and you might think twice before coming here to do something criminal,” Mayor Mark Mathews says.

As a national firearms debate rages in the U.S. after several mass shootings last year, the pro-gun lobby points to Kennesaw as a paragon of armed America. Police document just four gun-related homicides since 1980, making Kennesaw one of the safest communities of its size in the U.S., according to Lt. Craig Graydon of the criminal investigations unit.

“We’re not some crazy Wild West town,” Graydon says, noting the crime rate falls below half the national average. “Driving through, you might see some NRA bumper stickers, but you wouldn’t know there’s this gun law here.”

Graydon reckons half of homeowners actually comply. He doubts most newcomers realize the ordinance even exists. In his 27 years with the force, he’s never heard any fuss about repealing the policy.

The municipality adopted the law in March 1982 as a stand against the city of Morton Grove, Ill., which tried to outlaw civilian use of handguns the same year. While the Illinois ban was ruled unconstitutional, Kennesaw’s symbolic counter-law passed. Media quickly tagged the suburb, “Guntown, U.S.A.” “It was never intended to be an actual enforced law,” Graydon explains.

Many law-abiding Kennesaw residents don’t carry firearms openly. Some worry about being portrayed as redneck caricatures and distance themselves from hard-liners like Dent “Wildman” Myers, a gunslinging eccentric with a tangly beard and twin Colt .45 revolvers holstered, action-ready, to his hips.

Myers, 81, owns the Wildman’s Civil War Surplus shop. The red-brick landmark flies the rebel flag outside; indoors, Beethoven crackles on the stereo. For sale: KKK robes, white-power albums, Confederate accoutrements and Nazi literature. A bestseller is a T-shirt with crossed pistols and the slogan, “It’s the law in Kennesaw.” Orders come from across the country, Myers says.

The regulation has recently inspired four communities—in Georgia, Utah, Idaho and Maine—to model their own mandatory gun laws after Kennesaw’s. The Georgia city of Nelson, 40 minutes northwest and with a population of 1,300 and one sheriff, named its version the “Family Protection Ordinance.” The measure passed first reading and awaits an April 1 city council vote. Regional Tea Party chairman Bill McNiff, the Nelson resident who pitched the ordinance, wants the city to enact it “so the criminal element knows if you kick my door down, you better know what’s on the other side.”

And so as Washington spars over a proposed ban on assault weapons, community gun dealers like Adventure Outdoors in Kennesaw are selling out of AR-15s, the military-style semi-automatic that Adam Lanza used in the December Newtown school massacre. “People were buying them 10 at a time,” says William Boggs, a former marine who’s lived in Kennesaw for 15 years. “It’s like, get your hands on one before they make it illegal.”