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Rhode Island recall: Gun-rights battle could backfire on town leaders

Call it a double whammy. Four town councilmembers in Exeter, R.I., not only failed in their bid to get the state to take over concealed-carry permitting for their town, but now they face a recall election Saturday because of it.

The story is a small-town version of the drama that played out in Colorado earlier this year, when two state senators behind a new gun-control law were recalled by angry voters in September. A third facing recall resigned last month.

The recalls speak to the motivation and fervor of gun-rights advocates nationwide, who feel as though they are under attack from President Obama. The backlash against gun control in red states and even rural areas of blue states, like Exeter, speaks to why Mr. Obama is unlikely to revive any significant gun control legislation in his second term.

The Exeter recall centers on the question of who controls permitting for concealed-carry weapons. Before 2011, that job fell to the state attorney general. Normally, the local police department would oversee such permits, but Exeter is so small it doesn't have a police department.

To many gun owners, the distinction is significant. State law stipulates that local authorities "shall" give permits to qualified applicants. The state attorney general, however, has more room for discretion. The law says he "may" issue permits.

For that reason, a former town councilman, Dan Patterson, wanted local control over the permitting process. The town council agreed in August 2011, giving the authority to the town clerk and the town sergeant, a largely ceremonial position.

By the end of the year, however, the town council wished to reverse its decision, worried that local officials were not qualified for the task, according to the Providence Journal. The council passed a resolution asking the state General Assembly to have the attorney general retake control of permitting. The General Assembly refused.

This year, in March, the town council passed a second resolution asking the General Assembly to step in. Again, it was rejected – and the recall effort began. The four councilmembers who voted for the March resolution – President Arlene Hicks, Vice President William Monahan, Calvin Ellis, and Robert Johnson – are all facing a recall vote Saturday. The one councilmember who voted against the resolution, Raymond Morrissey, is not – and received a standing ovation when he cast his March vote, according to the Journal.

That standing ovation speaks to the nature of the gun-rights debate in America.

The Journal reports that some 300 people in a town of 6,000 showed up at that March town council meeting – hardly a majority, but a committed and engaged minority. The Journal reported booing and jeering as the council passed the resolution.

Since then, the Rhode Island Firearm Owners League has stepped in as a player, mirroring the strong grass-roots involvement of gun-rights groups in gun-control issues nationwide.  

Gun-rights advocates in Rhode Island are trying to make a point that elected officials who want to tighten gun laws will pay a political price, said Council President Hicks: "It was, 'We will make an example out of you.' "

In such a small town, polling is nonexistent, meaning that the prospects for the recall's success are unknown.

"It will all come down to voter turnout," said Mr. Patterson, who lost his town council seat by five votes last election. "I don’t think more than 600 voters are going to show up."

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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