SPRING CITY, Utah — From a pretty mountain valley, where the spirit of the pioneers who came 150 years ago lives on, one small town took a stand on guns.
“All in favor?” Spring City Mayor Eldon Barnes asked at a recent City Council meeting.
Four hands shot up quickly at the council table, and the three dozen or so townspeople filling rows of folding chairs looked on approvingly.
In a vote of 4 to 1, Ordinance 2013-04-02 moved closer to becoming law. It encourages every individual in the town of about 1,000 to own a firearm.
The action advanced the measure to a public hearing that will be held Thursday before a final vote takes place. But there is little doubt in these parts that it will pass. By most estimates, 90% of the population is already armed.
“This is our statement to the world. It’s us drawing a line in the sand about what we believe in and what we are willing to fight for,” said town resident Shad Hardy, jubilant as the council meeting came to a close.
As the nation’s leaders grapple with how best to stop gun violence, it is not even an issue in this corner of rural America, 2,000 miles from Washington and almost two hours from the nearest big city. Here the answer is wrapped up tightly in culture and tradition.
The ordinance was introduced by Neil Sorensen, a council member and fifth-generation resident. “We have a God-given right and a universal human responsibility to protect ourselves,” he said.
But protection from whom?
The place is not exactly riddled with crime. Nestled under the Manti-La Sal mountain range, Spring City appears on the National Register of Historic Places and was once described by Forbes.com as one of the “prettiest towns in America.” The last murder was — well, no one seems to know.
There was a possible suicide a few years back, and there’s an occasional domestic abuse call and the usual small-town smattering of property crime.
Sorensen was hit twice last summer: once when someone tried to boost scrap metal from his land and once when a would-be thief pried the tailgate off an old pick-up. He caught the guy in the act and held him at bay — with a shovel — until the police arrived.
Still, fear of crime persists, and lately it’s become intertwined with a larger, more abstract fear of government trampling personal freedoms.
Across dinner tables in century-old farmhouses, while pumping gas at the town’s Sinclair station or dropping by the post office, the conversation for many has shifted to suspicion that President Obama is quietly seeking to dismantle the 2nd Amendment — despite repeated assurances from Washington to the contrary.
“I’m very concerned that if the 2nd Amendment gets messed up, everything else will too. Are we going to lose our right to speak?” asked Kaye Watson, the unofficial town historian. She’s married to Dennis Watson, a descendant of town founder James Allred, who came west in the 1800s with Brigham Young. “I’m not sitting here quaking in my boots, but it is in the back of my mind. The Mormons came to Utah to get away from tyranny.”
Sorensen initially modeled his ordinance on one in Kennesaw, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, where in 1982 the City Council voted unanimously to require every head of household to have a gun.
The measure was a response to an ordinance banning guns in Morton Grove, Ill., said Pam Davis, a Kennesaw city spokeswoman. It’s never been enforced and Davis doubts most people in town know it exists.
And while the crime rate in Kennesaw is one of the lowest in Georgia, Davis said, “there is absolutely no statistical evidence that is attributed to the ordinance.”
Sorensen first thought about making guns a requirement in Spring City too. But it felt too rigid, so he amended the ordinance to simply encourage and support gun ownership.
A lifelong gun owner whose collection includes pistols, rifles and shotguns as well as extended magazines to hold large rounds of ammunition, Sorensen was deeply disturbed by the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre last summer. But as a father, it was the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that really got him thinking.
He felt so helpless, so sickened by the deaths of those little children. Someone had to do something.
In addition to encouraging gun ownership, his ordinance also would allow the use of city buildings for gun training classes.
The lone vote against the measure came from first-term council member Scott Allred, the great-great-great-great-grandson of James Allred, who founded Spring City in 1852. Allred declares himself “pro-gun” but voted no because he isn’t sure a formal ordinance is necessary. Plus, he worries it might encourage vigilantism among gun owners. He says he has privately heard from about 10 to 20 families who also are skittish, but he wonders whether they will speak up at the public hearing.
Mayor Barnes, a gun owner and strong backer of the 2nd Amendment, also has reservations. His son is a sheriff’s deputy and worries about ordinance language promoting “safety and protection” of the city. That is the job of the police, not the citizenry, he says. At the meeting, Barnes pushed for a resolution supporting gun ownership rather than an official ordinance. The resolution passed, but those backing the law did not budge.
“I really want it to go forward as an ordinance,” said Sorensen at the council meeting, adding that he worried some “Obama person can come in and just do away with a resolution.” He thought it would be harder to undo an ordinance.
“They can’t do that,” the mayor replied softly.
Barnes now wonders whether his position will haunt him at reelection time.
Sorensen says he has heard from dozens of other communities around the country that are considering similar ordinances. There have also been emails from people considering moving to Spring City because of the proposed law. “We have a lot of eyes on us,” he said.
No matter what happens, another new gun ordinance is already on the books. Last month the council approved free firearms training for teachers and administrators at the town’s lone elementary school. The goal: Help staff members obtain concealed weapons permits so they can bring guns to campus.
By law, school employees with a concealed weapon must keep it hidden on their body — not in a purse or desk — and they cannot tell anyone they are armed. So Sorensen says no one will knows whether anyone there is packing. But he added, “I sure hope so.”