Where it's a crime not to own a gun

A tiny Utah town has often passed bills symbolizing its strong opposition to Washington. Now, it's taking on gun control.

High atop a volcanic mesa, Fred and Shauna Johnson pound in the stakes marking off a walled-in courtyard. This will be Eagle Spirit Ranch, looking down on a dusty little town called Virgin, Utah, and up to the breath-taking white and vermilion cliffs of Zion National Park.

Jay Lee, the mayor of Virgin who dry-farms watermelon nearby, has come to visit. A dog plods over from the Johnsons' mobile home and curls up among the black lava rock as they survey the site of their future sanctuary. The high walls of the compound will fend off the relentless winds and the hungry coyotes.

They will also stand as a symbol of the deep-seated distrust of the federal government that pervades this tiny enclave among Utah's salmon sandstone cliffs.

In many pockets of the rural West, resentment runs deep over what residents consider an unwanted intrusion into their lives by "evil" Washington. But perhaps nowhere is the resistance to federal authority more overt than among the 318 residents here.

Virgin is the equivalent of a daily Boston Tea Party. Local residents don't just rebel against Washington. They defy it.

Refusing to obey Washington

The local town council, in fact, acts as a kind of photographic negative to Washington. The federal government enforces the Endangered Species Act. Virgin passes an ordinance outlawing the designation of endangered species within its borders.

Washington mandates the protection of wetlands. Virgin outlaws the recognition of any wetlands locally. Washington debates gun control. The Virgin town council, in its most recent and rambunctious move, passes an ordinance requiring guns in every home. It's been a shot heard round the world.

"Federal over-regulation is pushing us to the point where our boot heels are hanging over the edge of Grand Canyon, and we're not taking another step backwards," says Mr. Johnson, raising the blueprints for his new ranch like a banner.

Mayor Lee nods in agreement. The preamble to the new ordinance says it all. It reads in part: "... be it ordained that the Town of Virgin shall ... provide the right to maintain a firearm, together with ammunition."

The law, patterned after a 1982 ordinance from Kennesaw, Ga., sailed through the five-member council with one exception. Councilman Ken Cornelius voted against it. "We've got a whole list of ordinances, and nobody knows what they are," he says. "We can't even enforce them."

Enforcement, of course, probably isn't the point. As much as anything, the laws - particularly the gun ordinance - are intended to send a message, in italics, to Washington: Stay out of our lives.

"Jay is making a statement that we're not really going to be giving up our Second Amendment rights," says Johnson. "You need guns for when the law has failed you totally and you have no other recourse."

Just about everyone in Virgin already owns several guns - mostly hunting rifles, Lee suspects. In fact, he jokes that he must be the only "hick" in town who doesn't have a pickup truck with a rifle mounted on the back.

And they are quick to point out where they think the government is overstepping its bounds. Darcey Spendlove, a young teacher-turned-councilwoman who enjoys hunting, complains of the tedious loading and unloading process she and her husband must go through when they cross federal land (where loaded guns are illegal).

"I've hunted with my dad my whole life," she says. "My parents gave me my first rifle on my 16th birthday. Our kids grow up with guns and they know how to handle them."

In the spotlight

Since the ordinance passed in June, Lee a thin, spry man who obviously relishes the attention his small town has received, has found a demanding pastime fielding queries from around the world. He keeps a three-page list of callers, a scrapbook, and a stock of Virgin T-shirts for the growing number of curious visitors.

That list of visitors, of course, doesn't include environmentalists: The council has banned most of them from the town, as well.

"If you can get a law, and another law on top of that, and another, it strengthens our rights," says Lee. "It puts another layer of protection on our right to bear arms."

Indeed, the Virgin residents don't see themselves as extremists so much as caretakers of a waning American lifestyle threatened by an increasingly urban population and a perception that only criminals or cops carry guns.

"I'm kind of proud of them," says Rob Bishop, chair of the Utah Republican Party. "They're making a political statement like everyone else does. It's intended to show that we go overboard on all the regulations we have on our fundamental rights."

Andy Anderson runs Fort Virgin, a park-style Old West trading post on the highway to Zion. A transplant from California, Mr. Anderson sees the gun culture as just that - culture. He rents out vintage rifles and guns to movie companies shooting in the southern Utah panorama.

"I hope it's taken in the way it's meant," Anderson says of the law. "We're not a bunch of militia wacko people; it's just part of our heritage."

But Mr. Cornelius is more than skeptical.

"Most people think we're a bunch of lunatics here," he says. "I'd lots rather see Virgin known for having the best RV park in the country."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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