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Shooting Spurs Debates Over Race and Guns in a Gingerbread Town

The New York Times logo The New York Times 12/19/2014 RICHARD FAUSSET
Main Street in Helen, Ga., on Thursday. May Araim of Houston, a Muslim who was visiting her nephew in Georgia, was killed near here in August. © Kevin Liles for The New York Times Main Street in Helen, Ga., on Thursday. May Araim of Houston, a Muslim who was visiting her nephew in Georgia, was killed near here in August.

HELEN, Ga. — The blast from Glenn Lampien’s handgun echoed through the streets of this faux Alpine town.

Then May Araim, a Muslim tourist in a headscarf whom Mr. Lampien had never met, fell dead in front of a store selling Tyrolean hats and cuckoo clocks.

Four months into a state investigation, there are loose ends and questions that may never be answered. But for Helen, a German-themed tourist town that lures visitors with an affordable simulacrum of a Bavarian village, the death of Ms. Araim has proved to be a very American tragedy. It has been colored by a debate over gun policy and an unproven suspicion, voiced by some of Ms. Araim’s family members, that she was shot because of who she was and what she wore.

Mr. Lampien, 54, of Jasper, Ga., has admitted, in court documents, that it was a bullet from his gun that killed Ms. Araim on the night of Aug. 16. But he insists it was a tragic accident. He had ridden to town that weekend on his Harley-Davidson to participate in a motorcycle rally, and by that evening, according to Jeff Langley, the White County district attorney, Mr. Lampien had become “extremely intoxicated” — an assertion that his lawyer, Gus McDonald, disputes.

Mr. McDonald also insists that Mr. Lampien harbors no ill will toward Muslims.

Police officers discovered Mr. Lampien on a bench across the street from Ms. Araim, who was lying on a sidewalk. A group of people was trying to help her, and some told the police that she “had been shot by a male that was across the street,” according to an incident report. The day after, the Helen Police Department issued a statement that said Mr. Lampien had accidentally shot himself in the hand, with the bullet then crossing Main Street and striking Ms. Araim in the side.

Ms. Araim, 68, a resident of Houston, had been an Arabic teacher and assistant principal in her native Iraq. A few days before the shooting, she had passed her United States citizenship test. She had traveled to Georgia to visit a nephew in Lawrenceville. That Saturday night in Helen, she had been strolling with a group of relatives, including three other women who were also wearing headscarves.

Amer Araim, Ms. Araim’s cousin, is one of numerous relatives who suspected that the headscarves had made the women targets.

“We hear this story that the man was not intending to shoot at the lady,” Mr. Araim, 74, a political science professor who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif., said in a phone interview. “But really, I have doubts about this story, because he saw four women wearing scarves. And I think that brought on the whole thing.”

Mr. Araim has also joined critics of a Georgia law, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in March, that allows gun owners to carry their weapons in bars, schools, restaurants, churches and airports. The National Rifle Association hailed it as a “historic victory for the Second Amendment.”

Mr. McDonald acknowledged that his client, who had a valid handgun permit, had consumed some alcohol that night at a bar, and had brought his gun along with him.

Mr. Araim expressed his frustrations with the law in an editorial in The San Francisco Chronicle. Shortly after the shooting, The White County News, Helen’s local paper, had also railed against the law.

But months later, the debate in this conservative corner of the country seems to have fizzled.

“If we were going to argue about it, what good would it do?” Jennifer Bennett, 34, an employee of Hansel and Gretel Candy Kitchen, said recently over batches of fresh fudge. “I mean, the decision’s already been made.”

Mr. Lampien was arrested shortly after the shooting and charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony that carries a one- to 10-year sentence. He was released on bail two days later.

In the coming days, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is expected to deliver the result of its investigation to the district attorney’s office. But Mr. Langley said that more serious charges are unlikely, because no one, to his knowledge, has come forward to say they saw Mr. Lampien at the crucial moment the gun went off. Nor was he aware of any evidence that Mr. Lampien was biased toward Muslims.

In Helen this month, where tourist crowds were dwindling with the approaching winter, a number of people said they suspected that Mr. Lampien had acted stupidly, but not maliciously.

“I honestly doubt that he even knew he shot the woman,” said Cheryl O’Kelley, the owner of a jewelry store on Main Street.

“To aim at somebody, you’re not going to shoot through your hand,” said Mary De Groot, the owner of a Dutch-themed boutique. “And things like that never happen in this town. I think it was a freak accident.”

In an interview in an office lined with decorative beer steins, Jerry Elkins, the longtime city manager, noted that shooting deaths are rare in Helen. The city, he said, tends to have an easy time with the more than two million visitors it receives per year, many of them foreigners who come by the busload to marvel at a once-struggling logging town’s Bavarian makeover.

“Sometimes it’s like a foreign country here,” he said. “We draw all kind of people, of all nationalities.”

Also evident, behind the gingerbread house-style facades of Main Street are the less stage-managed realities of an emerging multicultural Georgia, with its unique tensions and contradictions. Two of the largest gift stores sell T-shirts emblazoned with Confederate battle flags and slogans like “Protect the New Endangered Species” and “Fight for the Right to Keep My Gun.”

One store is owned by a man from Uttar Pradesh, India. Another is owned by Golam Sarker, an immigrant from Bangladesh.

Mr. Sarker, 58, said that he sees prejudice against people like him “every once in a while” here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Very little things, maybe,” said Mr. Sarker, who goes by Danny. “But we don’t pay attention to them.”

It was just across the street, at King Ludwig’s Biergarten, where Mr. Lampien had skipped out on his bar tab on the night of the shooting, according to an owner, Cynthia Morris. She said the Biergarten had a “No Firearms” sign up before the incident, but it was behind the bar and sometimes obscured by cups. On a recent visit, a similar sign was posted more prominently.

“As soon as that happened, all kinds of bars and restaurants put those signs up,” said Jessica Callahan, a bartender at the Biergarten.

Mr. McDonald, the lawyer for Mr. Lampien, said that Mr. Lampien’s gun was defective, and that his client was guilty, at most, of a misdemeanor, and should serve no further jail time.

Mr. Lampien has been named in a wrongful death suit filed by Ms. Araim’s son Ammar Araim, of Houston. In Helen, there has been talk of planting a tree in Ms. Araim’s honor, perhaps near the river on Edelweiss Strasse.

And Mr. Lampien has written the Araim family a letter of apology, calling himself a peaceful man who would “never intentionally harm another person.”

“I have only carried a gun for personal protection,” he said. “I struggle with how this has changed my life and yours.”

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