One-cop Georgia town considers making gun ownership mandatory

Nelson, Ga., might require homeowners to have a gun. The idea that people should be ready to protect themselves while waiting for police to come is percolating in gun-rights circles.

A screenshot from Project Veritas's "You're On Your Own" video sting in Bronxville, N.Y.

The national debate about gun control has taken an unusual turn in the small, rural town of Nelson, Ga., where the city council is considering a measure to require homeowners to own a firearm.

For city councilman Duane Cronic, the proposal is a simple matter of math. The town has one police officer who is on patrol eight hours a day, leaving residents largely to fend for themselves the rest of the time.

"It takes a while for them to get there, Mr. Cronic told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Earlier this year, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke made the same plea to residents: Arm yourselves, because we might not be able to get there in time. And right-wing agitator James O'Keefe, the man behind video stings against Acorn and NPR, has released a new video in which secretly recorded police officers in the New York region acknowledging that homeowners are "on your own" until help arrives.

As gun-rights advocates retrench after the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., some are turning to "on your own" as their mantra. Their message is that Americans can't afford to wait for police to come and that their surest defense is self-defense.

That mind-set concerns many police chiefs, dozens of whom have signaled their support for gun-control measures proposed by President Obama. The result is additional tension, particularly in big cities, where police departments feel they are in an arms race with civilians.

"The fundamental idea at work here is citizens' relationship with the state, and that informs this gun debate in part because when you have a gun you don't need to dial 911," said Jennifer Carlson, a professor at the   University of Toronto who studies gun culture. "So, the idea of police dependency is changing, and that's also why you're hearing from pro-gun rights folks that you shouldn't have to ask for police permission to have a gun."

Nelson is not the first American city to consider mandating gun ownership. It's not even the first in the state. Kennesaw, Ga., passed such an ordinance in 1982. Nelson officials could make a decision on the proposal on April 1.

But many police officials draw a line between big cities and small towns like Nelson (population 1,500). Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said the issue of self-defense has gotten out of hand in Atlanta. His department has had to deal with citizens wearing loaded assault rifles at public protests.

"We don't think assault weapons should be part of the setting in urban America," said Chief Turner in an interview with the Monitor last month. "When you're talking about the largest 66 cities in America, where 80 percent of people in the country live, people living on top of themselves, that's a unique situation that's distinctly different than policing in [rural] Woodstock, Ga.," for example.

Not all big-city police officials are on the same page, however. Milwaukee County Sheriff Clarke recently put out a public-service announcement in which he urged residents to "consider taking a certified safety course in handling firearms to defend yourself until we get there. We're partners now. Can I count on you?"

But Milwaukee City Police Chief Ed Flynn testified to Congress last week in favor of more gun controls, saying: “In the last 20 years we’ve been in an arms race” with private citizens with more firepower than the cops.

The spread of concealed-carry laws, in particular, has changed how police look at people who carry guns.

"The kind of expansion of lawful gun carrying has definitely changed from the time where simply suspicion of gun carrying was a reason [for a police officer] to stop somebody and always a reason to search somebody – and it was a signal that you were a good cop when you found a gun," says Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

But the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown has shifted the gun debate. US public opinion polls show movement toward a greater willingness to consider some forms of gun control.

"We seem to have reversed course [in the gun debate] in a way that was not even conceivable before," says Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law and author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America."

That is where controversial citizen journalist Mr. O'Keefe and his Project Veritas come in. His new video shows police officers, primarily in the New York region, responding to questions from an elderly homeowner about how he should defend himself from an intruder.

An undercover camera and microphone record the officers' suggestions, which include throwing bleach, pretending to talk on the phone, leaving the house, or screaming. One officer suggested firearms were not for home protection but for "luxury."

Milwaukee County's Sheriff Clarke appears on the video, too. "I heard that throughout this video…: 'We'll try to get there as fast as we can.' Several said, 'You're on your own.' That's the truth."

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