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Militia turns Quaker town into 'gun city'

IT IS a sleepy rural town in the heart of the American West where residents are fiercely proud of their right to bear arms.

Many of the 862 residents of Greenleaf, Idaho, already own guns because they live in an area where hunting is a popular weekend pursuit and children learn how to handle firearms at an early age.

Yet in the week in which five children were shot dead at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, a new civil emergencies ordinance has many worried that the predominantly Quaker community in Idaho is turning into 'gun city' with its own private militia.

The ruling formally calls on the head of every household to possess a weapon and ammunition, and take training to learn how to use them safely.

"It's stepping over a line," said Alan Weinacht, pastor of the Greenleaf Friends Church descended from the original pacifist Quaker order that settled the town in 1903, and of which more than a quarter of townsfolk are members.

"The US as a whole is descending into a culture of fear and that's part of what's going on here. If we would invest as much time into thinking about creative non-violent responses to violence as we did violent responses, we'd gain ground."

Steve Jett, the councillor who drew up the controversial ordinance, insists that there is no motive other than a deterrent to would-be criminals. He says he based it on similar legislation adopted by the city of Kennesaw, Georgia, in 1982, where crime, and particularly burglary, dropped as a result of householders being required to have a gun.

The difference is that there is no crime in Greenleaf. The worst incident of violence during the last two years was reportedly a drunken fistfight, and apart from the occasional tyre slashing by a bored youth, the Canyon County Sheriff's Department has little to deal with in the town.

"There's no way I could say that Greenleaf has a huge crime problem," Jett said. "However, I never want there to be, and that's what the ordinance is designed to be about. It's important for us to be ready for anything.

"The Idaho code says that you can act when you're in danger. That assumes that you already own a firearm. You're not going to wait until the bad guy is in your living-room before you go out to buy one."

The measure will be voted on next month. Jett points out that the proposal merely requests residents to maintain a firearm with ammunition. There will be exemptions for "heads of household who are paupers, or who conscientiously oppose maintaining firearms as a result of beliefs or religious doctrine".

"The church's stance is that they don't want the city to become known as the 'gun-toting town'," Jett said. "If people want to make changes to individual sections of the ordinance, then I'm not above it."

The issue has brought national attention on Greenleaf, with late-night chat-show host Jay Leno among those poking fun.

"Who'd want to be a Jehovah's Witness there?" he wondered. "You knock on a door at seven o'clock in the morning and 'bang!' Everybody would have to have a gun in the house. Don't we have a place like that already? It's called Texas."

The ribbing was not particularly welcome, according to Lee Belt, the Greenleaf city clerk. "It's the sort of attention we don't really want or need," he said.

But one gun law expert believed that the proposal was all about publicity. "It brings to criminals' attention to what was already largely known, that there are a large number of guns in this town and that 'victims' are more able to defend themselves, or at least appear that way," said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University.

"It's the kind of thing that would be adopted in a place where people like guns, and the places where it's going to be passed are the places where it's largely redundant. Most towns figure that they don't need the attention or ridicule."

Kleck added that it was unclear whether the Kennesaw law had brought it any lasting benefit. "It's hard to tell because crime rates in small towns fluctuate," he said. "There was a drop in residential burglaries, probably because this was especially well publicised, but I'm not sure it can be reproduced indefinitely."

Greenleaf residents, meanwhile, appear bewildered by the huge numbers of journalists arriving in the town to report the story.

"I don't know if it is good for every household, but we being hunters have always had guns," said Bonnie Cagle.

Weinacht is another who admits to hunting and shooting as a hobby. "I'm a Quaker preacher and I've got guns sitting in my closet," he said. "But this is not a matter of paranoia and about having a gun or not. My guess is that anyone in this town who wants to own a gun already has one."

Jett said he never intended his proposal to cause such a furore. "I'm just hoping things return to normal quickly," he said.

 
 
 

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