The peaceful, sparsely populated, wooded town of Exeter, Rhode Island is turning into the latest battleground over gun laws.
But after a nasty fight characterized by personal attacks and conspiracy theories, residents beat back an attempt by gun-rights activists to recall four of the five members of the town council over their unsuccessful bid to make a seemingly procedural change in the way concealed-weapon permits are issued.
About two-thirds of the more than 1,800 voters who cast ballots rejected the recall.
Backers of the measure said they considered even their loss to be a victory of sorts. The efforts of the town council members and their advocates to overcome the recall “means they took it seriously,” said Brian Bishop, one of the leaders of the campaign. “I hope that also means they’re going to take seriously, regardless of the topic, that they have to really listen to the townspeople from here on in. We hope they understand that the townspeople won’t be asleep.”
The Exeter vote followed the successful recall of two Colorado legislators, state Senate President John Morse and state Senator Angeloa Giron, after they voted for tougher gun restrictions there. A third Colorado state senator facing recall, Evie Hudak, resigned.
Supporters of the Exeter Town Council members said the recall election there was forced by what they called “radical” special interests from other places trying to make an example of their town.
“The reason this was so important is that it shows how uncompromising people have become,” said Joseph Cammarano, a political science professor at Providence College who has followed the referendum. “It’s something you see at the national level on all sorts of issues, but particularly over guns.”
Advocates for recalling elected officials over gun votes, Cammarano said, “are like the Mob: ‘You mess with me, I’ll make your life miserable, so don’t mess with me.’ That’s what’s happening. It’s kind of like a preemptive strike, a form of intimidation for the next group considering doing something—anything.”
Exeter Town Council members had proposed a change in the way permits are issued for concealed weapons, which is handled in other Rhode Island towns and cities by the local police departments. But rural Exeter, which has a population of 6,245 spread across 60 square miles, is the only town in the state that doesn’t have a police department. (It’s patrolled by the state police.)
Until 2011, the state’s attorney general handled concealed-weapon applications for Exeter. Then the council voted to let the town clerk take over the process.
Some members soon had second thoughts. That’s because, Council President Arlene Hicks said, the clerk does not have access to certain records that are available to the police or the attorney general, such as whether an applicant has attempted suicide, committed crimes as a juvenile, has a non-criminal history of alcohol and drug abuse, has been charged with crimes but not convicted or has been the subject of protective orders.
The application process for a permit is the same whether it’s before a town or the attorney general. But critics, for their part, point out that there’s a major distinction in the process by which the decisions are made. State law says local authorities “shall” issue permits to qualified applicants—but that the attorney general’s office “may” grant them, a single word that conceivably allows more leeway to say no.
The town council twice voted to hand the job back to the attorney general, something that requires approval from the state’s General Assembly. The General Assembly both times declined. But the attempts alone were enough to trigger the recall campaign against the four members of the five-member council who were in favor of the change.
“These people we elected, if we knew we weren’t going to have our rights, we wouldn’t have elected them,” said Lorenzo Solito after voting for the recall at a polling station at the Metcalf Middle School, where there were long lines in spite of temperatures in the teens and an impending snowstorm. “So now that they did this, see you later. We want them out.”
Other voters voiced impatience with the situation and frustration at the cost of the referendum. The council members will be up for reelection in November.
“Regardless of what you feel about the gun issue, this is not the way to run government,” said Bill Haas, a retired teacher. “We elect officers to run our government for a certain period of time. If we don’t like what they do, we can elect new people.”
Joan Galloway, who also voted against the recall, said of gun advocates: “We’re not taking away their rights. They’ve just got to go upstate.” She held up a gloved hand with her thumb and index finger spread apart. “And Rhode Island is this big.”
Many of the supporters of the council members blamed outside interests for forcing—and bankrolling—the vote. The recall campaign was financially supported largely by a political action committee called We the People, set up by the Rhode Island Firearms Owners’ League. Documents filed with the state Board of Elections show the PAC collected $4,553 from the time it was organized in August through Oct. 31; only one contributor listed Exeter as his address.
Bishop disputed this. “We would vehemently disagree with their characterization that there were special interests going after the town. There were Exeter people involved with this from the get-go.”
But he also conceded that the argument appeared to have made inroads with voters.
Hicks, president of the town council and one of the members targeted for recall, said the vote was meant as a warning to elected officials like her.
“They came right out and said, ‘We’ll make an example of you. See, we were successful in Colorado, you’re next,’” she said. “It sets a very scary precedent. I don’t care what the issue is. It could be something as simple as raising the cost of beach admission; if you don’t vote our way, you’re gone.”
Supporters of the council members said their opponents misled people who signed the petition in support of the recall by telling them, for example, that the town council planned to eliminate tax benefits for the elderly.
Another voter, Elissa Archambault, said, “It’s ridiculous. I’m out here at Christmas time because people want to force their agenda. I got more stuff in the mail about this stupid day than about any other election. It’s certainly symbolic of something bigger than our town.”
There was other symbolism in voters’ minds, some said. The referendum, whose date was set by the elections board, came on the first anniversary of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., a state Exeter borders at one end.
“It’s outrageous,” said Peter Lacouture, who came along with his wife, Marnie, to vote against the recall. “We need better gun laws.”
Exeter residents and outside observers said more was going on than just the fight about guns. Had the four council members—all Democrats—been recalled, they would have been replaced by the three runners-up from the last council election—all of them Republicans—plus a fourth replacement that the new board would have appointed.
Maureen Moakley, a political scientist at the University of Rhode Island, said the Exeter situation also symbolizes a strategy by gun-rights forces to be selective about where they can and cannot win.
“The gun lobby has wisely looked at the landscape and decided it maybe can’t win statewide in Colorado or Rhode Island,” Moakley said. “But in a small town or a legislative race, they can make a difference.”
Thirty-seven percent of Exeter voters turned out for the election. The vote was 1,171 to 681 against recalling Hicks. Her fellow council members avoided losing their seats by 1,179 to 679 for William Monahan, 1,171 to 681 for Calvin Ellis, and 1,164 to 693 for Robert Johnson.