EXETER, R.I. — William Monahan can walk out his back door in this woodsy town on any weekend and hear the pop of gunfire. His ear knows when a neighbor has gotten a new AR-15 rifle. His grown son keeps a 9-millimeter handgun at the house, and Monahan supplies him with fire extinguishers to shoot in the gravel bank out back and watch them explode in a shower of white foam.
So the vice president of the Exeter Town Council was shocked when his vote last spring to ask the Legislature to have the Rhode Island attorney general handle concealed carry permits instead of the town clerk put him and three fellow council members in the cross hairs of the vitriolic national debate over gun control.
Exeter residents and gun advocates protested the move, then launched a drive to recall four of the five members of the Town Council for infringing on their Second Amendment rights and ignoring the will of the people.
That culminated on Saturday in an unprecedented election in an impending snowstorm 11 days before Christmas. Despite the weather, which forced postponement of a live nativity at the Exeter Chapel, more than 1,800 people, or 37 percent of the town’s 5,000 registered voters, turned out to reject the recall, by a margin of 63 to 37 percent.
“Exeter strong,” shouted one supporter.
In addition to Monahan, the other council members who faced recall, all Democrats, were council president Arlene B. Hicks, Calvin Ellis, and Robert Johnson.
Even though the Rhode Island Legislature twice killed the requested change in the permit law, the council’s opponents were riled up. They formed a political action committee with the Rhode Island Firearm Owners’ League and collected more than 600 signatures on a recall petition.
“This has nothing to do with guns,” said Lance Edwards, one of the local organizers, who vowed to continue to work against the council members in the 2014 election. “It’s a matter of honesty, integrity, and good government.”
But some voters seemed annoyed, particularly since a successful recall would have replaced the ousted officials with the Republicans they defeated in 2012.
“To vote out the winners and replace them with the losers makes no sense to me,” said Jason Lavoie, after he voted against the recall. “I wasn’t happy about the gun issue, but this is crazy.”
Interest in the election was magnified by an unintended coincidence — it fell on the first anniversary of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
“This wasn’t a gun issue, it was a procedural issue,” said Monahan. But after Newtown and the recent recall of two Colorado senators who supported gun control, “we were caught up in the backlash.”
In March, the council voted, 4-1, to ask the state Legislature to relieve the town clerk of issuing concealed carry permits, a task with which she was uncomfortable. Opponents overflowed the cozy, curtained Town Hall, so the meeting was moved a week later to the elementary school, where a capacity crowd of 300 shouted their objections.
Prior to the meeting, a flier was circulated with photos of local state Representative Doreen Costa, a Republican who has been active with the Tea Party movement, and the Rhode Island administrator of Gun Rights Across America, encouraging people to attend “to keep the peoples right to apply for carry permits in the town of Exeter.”
Council president Hicks described one e-mail, superimposed over the barrel of a gun pointed at the reader: “Don’t pass this or we’ll make an example of you.”
Exeter is the last town in Rhode Island without a police department. Rhode Island State Police officers handle calls in this 57-square-mile town of 6,245 people, Rhode Island’s second largest by land but sixth smallest by population.
The law was forgotten for years, until Republican councilman and local gun dealer Dan Patterson discovered it in 2011.
The four-page application asks applicants whether they ever been arrested or treated for mental illness. The applicant must obtain criminal background checks from the Rhode Island attorney general and the FBI. Then, Town Clerk Lynn Hawkins consults with the town sergeant, Richard Brown, who at age 84 has held the elected position for more than three decades, and upon his recommendation issues the permit. In the past two years, Hawkins has issued 25 permits and rejected one.
Hicks argued the attorney general has access to more information than the town, such as juvenile offenses, mental illness, and noncriminal history of alcohol or drug abuse. That angered recall advocates, who said she misled voters since it is not the town that conducts the background check.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin said he would prefer one central clearing house for gun permits, and will continue to push for legislation, which died this year, to take over permitting from all Rhode Island cities and towns.
That angers gun advocates like former councilman Patterson, who do not trust the attorney general or believe that he approves more than 90 percent of applications, since the records are confidential.
They also point to a distinction in Rhode Island law — communities “shall” issue permits; the attorney general “may.”
As they celebrated Saturday night, the triumphant councilors were asked if they will revisit the permit question in 2014.
“No way!” said Monahan. “I don’t want to give them any more ammunition to come after us.”
Hicks said she would want some reassurance first that the Legislature is willing to act. Ellis said they should “seriously consider” it.
“We were on the right side of the issue,” said Ellis. “The silent majority came out today. Those that make the most noise aren’t always on the right side.”