The headline says it all: "Moving to Nelson? Pack a gun."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran that front-page story this month about the small town of Nelson, Ga, located 54 miles north of Atlanta. The story chronicled how the town’s council recently passed a law requiring the head of every household to own a gun and bullets.
Local leaders say the law was meant as a security measure. But it also made a strong statement about possible federal gun restrictions.
In discussing the town and his support of the new law, Nelson’s police chief, B. Heath Mitchell, noted that Nelson was a place full of good, law-abiding folks. In fact, "we’re quieter than Mayberry," he said.
OK, OK, the chief was using a bit of poetic license here. But since he compared his town to one of the best-known locales on the planet -- even if it is just a too-good-to-be-true TV town -- we thought we’d go ahead and give it a spin in the AJC Truth-O-Meter. PolitiFact Georgia decided to "nip it, nip it in the bud" once and for all.
And anyway, a fact check that requires watching episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" is one we couldn’t pass up.
Nelson has become a media magnet ever since the town passed the gun law. Requests for comment came from as far as Germany and the United Kingdom. Nationally, the story has been picked up by CNN, Fox News and the Huffington Post.
Nelson’s new law is similar to a 1982 law passed in Kennesaw, Ga. Like Kennesaw, Nelson ultimately has no intention of enforcing the law, but hopes to send a message to possible criminals, council members said.
"If you plan on doing us harm, we’ll be armed," said a Nelson city leader.
We checked in with Chief Mitchell about crime in Nelson and its similarities to fictional Mayberry. Nelson straddles the counties of Pickens and Cherokee, and was once home to a thriving marble industry. The city has produced marble for headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, and for building the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol.
Mitchell describes the city as a Norman Rockwell painting with so few crimes that the crime rate is too low to calculate. "It’s quiet, just the way I like it," he said.
In fact, Nelson is smaller than Mayberry. Nelson’s 2.5 square miles include a population of just 1,314 residents, according to the 2000 census. Mayberry’s population is 5,360, according to the opening scene of a sign posted at the railroad station in a Season 8 episode.
The fictional Mayberry was said to be based on the actual town of Mount Airy, N.C., hometown of lead actor Andy Griffith. Griffith starred in the 1960s sitcom as the town’s sheriff, and Don Knotts played his bumbling deputy, Barney Fife. Andy didn’t carry a gun, and Barney was allowed just one bullet, which Andy made him carry in his shirt pocket as a safety precaution.
In Nelson, Mitchell is the only lawman in town. When he takes a vacation, the job falls to the sheriff’s offices in Pickens and Cherokee counties. The town is budgeted for two more cops, Mitchell said, but they haven’t been hired yet. What crime Nelson does have is of the small-time variety, mainly burglaries. The last murder happened five years ago, and the suspect has fled to Mexico, according to the chief.
Most of Nelson’s time is taken up with traffic control.
Back in Mayberry, the crime report looks pretty similar. We watched a Season 2 episode, "Sheriff Barney," for more information. In that episode, we find out that Mayberry has held the distinction of having the lowest crime rate in the state for three years running. In that episode, the major crime is said to be a resident operating an illegal moonshine still in the mountains. Andy and Barney have been looking for the still for weeks. Eventually the moonshiner, Rafe Hollister, comes to the jail and turns himself in, saying it was only a matter of time before Andy and Barney would catch him anyway. With that kind of self-policing, who needs guns.
Actual crime numbers for the two towns are hard to find. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports only provide crime statistics on cities with populations over 100,000, so Nelson is not covered in this data, and the city doesn’t seem to have reported any data. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation only provides statewide crime rates, not those for local jurisdictions. As for unofficial data, real estate website Sperling’s Best Places gives Nelson a rank of 2 on a 1-to-10, lowest-to-highest scale for property and violent crime. The U.S. average for that website ranking is 4.
Two other "Andy Griffith Show" episodes mention Mayberry’s low crime. One calls Mayberry the most crime-free town in the country, but there aren’t any episodes detailing offenses.
PolitiFact Georgia did some checking to see if Nelson was on any list of the safest cities in America.
Golly, nothing there.
Plano, Texas, listed by Forbes as having the lowest crime rate in the nation, has a violent crime rate of 0.17 per 1,000 residents. Its population is about 262,000. The north Fulton municipality of Milton, listed as the nation’s 39th safest city on one website, averages one murder a year.
Towns comparing themselves to Mayberry is nothing new, said Jim Clark, head of the 20,000-member "Andy Griffith Show" Rerun Watchers Club. "People understand Mayberry as being the touchstone of wholesomeness with quiet, gentle life," Clark said. Even when the Vietnam War and racial tensions erupted in the real world, "The Andy Griffith Show" provided a place of escape with Mayberry where Opie (Andy’s TV son) was still doing kid things and Aunt Bee was making homemade apple pies.
"But if you’ve got a low-crime town, you probably don’t need to arm every resident," Clark said. "It doesn’t seem like a necessary thing to do for peacekeeping purposes."
So does Mitchell’s claim get renewed for another season?
The Nelson police chief said his town was quieter than Mayberry. Both small towns have limited crime and a limited police presence. Nelson is such a small town that its crime statistics are not reported by the FBI or GBI; and "The Andy Griffith Show" didn’t detail crime stats.
One major difference in the towns: Mayberry’s officers made a point of fighting crime with words, not guns. Andy didn’t even carry one. Nelson’s leaders opted for an entirely different style of governance by requiring each head of household to own a firearm and bullets.
Many small cities with low crime, such as Nelson, liken themselves to Mayberry. But living up to the extremely high standards set by that fictitious town is almost impossible.
We rated Mitchell’s claim Half True.
Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.