The Exeter Four

There’s a moment in the Tom Hanks film Forrest Gump where Forrest does something incredibly dangerous. He repeatedly puts his life at risk to save five members of his unit in Vietnam.

“Are you stupid, or something?” a military official asks.

In a line that is repeated throughout the film, Forrest answers, “Stupid is as stupid does, sir.”

I thought of that line as I was reading a story in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 12) about the actions of a small New England town.

Last Saturday, Exeter, Rhode Island, a small town of 6,400 souls, voted “on whether to boot four of the five members of the town council from office,” the Journal reported.


“Supporters of Exeter’s recall election say the members ignored their will by trying to change the permitting process for carrying concealed weapons, a move they say could make it harder to carry handguns outside the home. The council members argue that they were only trying to improve public safety by beefing up background checks for permit seekers.”

Some people in Exeter viewed this as a rights issue. ” ‘My personal belief is those four are anti-gun, plain and simple,’ said Letitia Davis… ‘Our rights are at issue here – our second amendment rights as well as our rights to be listened to by our elected leaders.’ ”

Actually, this is not about the second amendment. It’s about obtaining current, vital background information on peoplebefore they are granted a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public.

“The events leading to the Exeter recall began in 2011,” the Journal writes, “when a town councilman at the time, Dan Patterson, learned of a long-ignored Rhode Island law concerning concealed-carry permits.

“For years, Rhode Islanders had mostly filed applications for concealed-carry permits with the state attorney general, whose office would check for criminal histories with federal and state authorities, and check for other red flags with police departments in the state. But under the newly unearthed law, the permitting process could be handled by local police departments, rather than the state attorney general. In towns without a police force, like Exeter, the process could be handled by the town’s clerk and its town sergeant, largely a ceremonial position in Exeter.

“The council voted to approve the change, and in late 2011, the town clerk, Lynn Hawkins, began accepting applications. Ms. Hawkins said she has issued 22 concealed-carry permits to date.”

This sounds like a reasonable and effective process, except for one significant detail.

“The Exeter clerk’s office is largely unable to get important background information from the state police, which services Exeter. Moreover, such information, like the existence of suicide attempts, restraining orders or rejected concealed-carry applications, likely wouldn’t show up in a federal or state-level background check.  ‘The state [force] isn’t required to give us this stuff, so we miss out on a lot of [vital] information,’ said Bill Monahan, one of the council members up for recall.”

So it’s really an information issue, not a second amendment issue; information that, according to 4 of the 5 city councilmen is critical.

“In 2011, not long after it approved the change, and then in 2013, the council passed resolutions asking the Rhode Island legislature to take the responsibility for the permitting process away from the town. Neither bill advanced. But this year’s resolution, passed on a 4-1 vote by the council, angered the gun-rights community and prompted the recall effort.”

“Frank DiGregorio, an architect in Exeter and member of the town’s planning board, called the recall attempt ‘an awful thing that’s happened to this town.’ The Newtown tragedy ‘makes really clear that the authorities should have all sorts of information our town clerk can’t access,’ he added.”

And that is the critical point. While the explanation had been made clear to gun advocates, it didn’t make a difference. They saw it as another attempt at gun control.

Is this a matter of defending individual rights or an example of willful ignorance? Is it right for the council to override the concerns of hundreds of gun supporters for the sake of having more complete information on an individual applying for a permit?

How would you vote?

Last Saturday, December 14, Exeter voters “…defeated an effort by gun rights activists… to recall four sitting town councilors who had proposed changing the way gun permits are issued.

” ‘This was never a gun rights issue,’ said Town Council President Arlene Hicks, one of the councilors targeted by the recall. ‘It started out as a procedural proposal that we made as a council.’

“Town election officials reported a higher than expected turnout, with 63 percent voting against the recall.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the second amendment remains intact, (despite the fact that it was never in danger to begin with). The only difference is now the Rhode Island State General Assembly will take up the issue, and when they do, perhaps some of the good citizens of Exeter will come to understand that full and complete background information is a vital part of the second amendment process, not an obstacle to it.



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