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Highest Ownership : Guns--'A Way of Life' in the South

April 27, 1987|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

KENNESAW, Ga. — Five years ago, when the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove banned the possession of weapons within its city limits, this small Georgia town showed those benighted Yankees how folks here felt about that.

By a unanimous vote, the Kennesaw Town Council passed an ordinance requiring every household here to keep a working firearm on the premises, complete with ammunition. In Kennesaw, Morton Grove is known contemptuously as " Moron's Grove."

Kennesaw's example illustrates an enduring truth of life below the Mason-Dixon line: Southerners love guns. It is a trait deeply ingrained, shared by whites and blacks alike, and stubbornly resistant to change.

Second to None

Gun enthusiasts, of course, are gun enthusiasts no matter where they live; Westerners are notable gun lovers too. But by almost any measure, Southerners outdo all other Americans in their devotion to firearms and the constitutional right of private citizens to keep and bear them.

Southerners own more guns proportionately than people in any other region.

They have fewer laws restricting weapons ownership.

Southern congressmen are among the most solid supporters of pro-gun legislation.

Gun shows are major spectacles in the South.

And whatever the latest trend in firearms may be--like the current enthusiasm for rent-a-machine-gun shooting galleries--Southerners can be counted on to be there first.

What's more, as Kennesaw's gun ordinance so graphically demonstrates, Southerners do not cotton much to people who think guns should be outlawed.

"A law like we passed could only have been passed in the South," said Kennesaw Mayor J. O. Stephenson. "It may be hard for somebody from the big-city North to understand, but guns are a way of life in this part of the country."

Start With BB Guns

For many Southerners, the initiation into the way of weapons begins with the gift of a boy's first gun--almost invariably a BB gun--to develop safety skills and learn basic principles of ballistics.

"When I was growing up, every kid's dream was to own a BB gun," said Bill Buckley, 37, an Atlanta attorney from the rural southwest Georgia town of Cuthbert. "From a BB gun, you then went up to a .22 rifle, your first 'real' gun and one you'd usually do a lot of squirrel hunting with. And then you'd graduate to a .410 or some other small-gauge shotgun."

What is more, he said, "You were always taught respect for the weapons: 'Don't point it at anybody. Treat every gun like it's loaded.' The idea was not just to keep you from killing somebody but also to instill certain values in you, like responsibility and trustworthiness."

Partly as a result of this rite of passage, young Southerners are far more likely to have fired a weapon than their counterparts in the North. According to one study, for example, 81% of college students in the South have fired guns compared to 56% of college students in the North.

This higher tendency among Southerners also is linked to the presence of guns in the home, the study said. Among Southern male students reared in a home where guns are kept, more than 99% had fired a weapon.

Gun ownership is, of course, the rule in the South. Particularly in rural areas, a house is not a home without at least one shotgun over the fireplace and a handgun in a bedside drawer. And some Southerners do not leave home without a weapon: the farmer with a shotgun in a rack in the back window of his pickup truck still is a common--and to Northerners unfamiliar with Southern customs, often perturbing--sight on country roads.

Protecting the Nest

"My father was a Baptist minister in north Georgia and even he used to keep a .38 Smith & Wesson in the home," said Olivia Smathers of Kennesaw. "He didn't approve of drinking or dancing, but he said that a gun was something a family should have and should know how to use, because every animal in God's kingdom knows how to protect its nest."

According to studies cited in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, now being edited by scholars at the University of Mississippi, the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee have the highest rate of gun ownership in the nation.

Nearly 75% of the residents of those four states own weapons. By comparison, the rate in the Mountain region, which includes Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, is about 65%--the highest proportion outside the South. New England, with 23.4%, has the lowest rate in the nation.

Whether its love of guns has led to more violence in the South has stirred much debate. During the bloody civil rights struggle of the 1960s, scholars and journalists argued that violence fostered by weapons was an inherent part of the Southern psyche.

Film 'Easy Rider' Cited

Popular culture reinforced that viewpoint. In the 1969 Hollywood film "Easy Rider," for example, actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were blown away in cold blood by two Florida rednecks in a pickup truck because Hopper tossed an obscene gesture their way when they told him to get a haircut.

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