By DAVID KLEPPER, Associated Press
EXETER, R.I. (AP) _ This sleepy town of 6,000 doesn’t have a police department, and the only firearm violence tends to be directed at deer. Its biggest controversies usually stem from the local animal shelter or noise from the town pub.
It’s an unusual place for a debate over gun control.
Yet this rural community 30 minutes south of Providence has become the latest place where officials are facing consequences for proposals to change gun laws.
Four of the five council members are now the subject of a recall election to be held Dec. 14 after they angered local gun owners with an idea to tweak the way the town issues concealed weapon permits.
“It’s frustrating. I’m a gun owner myself. My sons are hunters. I have no problem with the Second Amendment,” said Councilman Bob Johnson, who, like the others facing recall, is a Democrat.
Earlier this year, the council passed a resolution asking the state’s General Assembly to allow the state attorney general to process the permits. Under current law, those seeking a permit may apply to either the attorney general or their local police. Since Exeter doesn’t have a police department, the job now falls to the town clerk.
The four council members argued that the clerk– also the town’s lone elected sergeant– lacks the resources to conduct proper background checks. Some 22 permits have been issued in the past two years.
Gun owners said giving the attorney general control over the town’s weapons permits would make it harder to get one.
Even though the council’s request never got a vote in the Assembly, gun rights supporters began petitioning for a recall, saying the town’s leaders had ignored the concerns of hundreds of people who turned out for a meeting on the proposal. Some accused the council of attempting to violate residents’ constitutional rights.
“Early on, (they) figured it was a bunch of crazies out in the woods,” said Brian Bishop, who has lived in Exeter for more than 30 years and worked on the recall effort. “I support liberal access to firearms. But that wasn’t what got me involved. It was the way it was handled. You elect people to represent you.”
Debates about gun policy have sparked similar ouster efforts elsewhere. Last month, two Democratic Colorado state senators –including the Senate president– were recalled over their support for changes to gun laws in that state following the theater massacre in Aurora in 2012.
Exeter Council President Arlene Hicks said she believes gun rights advocates are trying to make a point that elected officials who want to tighten gun laws– even in small ways– will pay a political price.
The recall has attracted the support of gun owners from around the state, including the Rhode Island Firearm Owners’ League.
“It was, `We will make an example out of you,”’ she said.
The recall election– coincidentally coming on the anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting– is expected to cost about $6,000 or $7,000, according to Mary Hall, chairwoman of the town’s board of canvassers. State election officials can only remember a single recall election in state history– the successful 2007 recall of a town council president in Smithfield after residents learned that years before, he had testified in court to bribing officials in Providence and Pawtucket.
The four officials being targeted by the recall effort are Hicks, Johnson, William Monahan and Calvin Ellis. A fifth member is not up for recall: independent Councilman Raymond Morrissey Jr., who voted against the resolution asking the General Assembly to make the change.
If the four council members are recalled, their seats would be filled by three candidates who lost the last council election. The fourth seat would be filled by a council appointment.
Former Councilman Dan Patterson lost his 2012 re-election by just five votes. The Republican will rejoin the council if even one of the current council members is recalled.
“It will all come down to voter turnout,” he said. “I don’t think more than 600 voters are going to show up.”
In an effort to turn out their supporters, the council members facing recall created a website and printed up bumper stickers and signs urging residents to vote no. Resident Frank DiGregorio, a 30-year
Exeter resident who serves on the town planning board, said he opposes the recall and worries that well-organized and motivated gun owners will outnumber the council’s supporters on election day.
“This isn’t a gun rights issue at all. It was a local administrative issue,” he said. “But we’re under siege.”
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