We think of the olden days as the “Wild West,” when it seemed most everybody toted a gun and showdowns were common in the middle of the street. Western movies, perhaps, gave us that impression, although at times it wasn’t all that exaggerated.
Some use the term “Wild West” in referring to Atlanta’s crime rate today. Some blame increasing crime rates on looser gun laws. Gov. Brian Kemp signed his “concealed carry law” or “guns everywhere law” as critics call it, that allows gun owners to carry their weapons concealed or otherwise into public places, no license or background check required.
Georgia, however, in the past had some pretty strict gun laws. You weren’t supposed to carry a pistol, period. If caught, you faced confiscation of the weapon, a $50 fine (quite steep in that day) and 30 days in jail.
The story is told of a North Georgia mountain judge whose last name was Lester. In 1879, the judge interrupted court proceedings to tell the bailiffs to lock the doors and let nobody out because he had spotted somebody in the courtroom with a pistol.
“Gentlemen,” Judge Lester announced, “I saw a pistol on a man in this room a few moments ago, and I cannot reconcile it to my sense of duty as a peace officer to let such a violation of this law pass unnoticed. It may be that it is my duty to go before the grand jury and indict him, but if that man will walk up to this stand and lay his pistol and a fine of $1 down here, I will let him off this time.”
At that, a lawyer near the bench got up, slipped his hand into his hip pocket, withdrew an ivory-handled Smith & Wesson six-shooter and laid it with a dollar before the judge.
“That is all right,” Judge Lester told him, “but you are not the man I saw with the pistol.”
Then another lawyer sitting near the judge stood, brought out a small Colt revolver and laid it with a dollar bill on the judge’s bench.
“This is right again,” Judge Lester said, “but you are not the man I speak of.”
That followed with a husky fellow approaching the bench and laying his old army pistol and $1 before the judge. “I declare,” the judge said, “if this doesn’t beat all, but you are not the man I saw with the pistol.”
This went on until there was a parade of 19 pistols and $19 on the judge’s bench, and it seemed the courtroom crowd was pretty well disarmed.
Yet, the judge said the man he first saw with a pistol still hadn’t come up. Whereupon, he pulled out his watch, looked over the courtroom and declared, “I will give him one minute to accept my proposition, and if he does not do it, I will point him out to the sheriff and order him to take him into custody.”
Immediately, two men from the back of the courtroom moved to the front of the bench, looked at each other and handed over their pistols and the $1 fines.
The judge identified the one whom he had seen with the pistol in the first place, then lectured his audience on “the cowardly, foolish and wicked habit of carrying concealed weapons.” He assured those in attendance the law would be more strictly enforced from then on.
Judge Lester then resumed regular court business. It was said that from that day forward a lot of residents of that county kicked the habit of carrying concealed weapons — at least when Judge Lester was holding court.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.