Why Athens’ Mayor Is Pushing for Stricter Gun Laws

Mayor Kelly Girtz. Credit: Chris Scredon/file

In the 20 years that I spent as a teacher and administrator in middle schools and high schools in Athens and Northeast Georgia before my time as mayor of Athens-Clarke County, many students and families I knew had encounters with gun violence: a student shot in the knee during horseplay, one who shot a girlfriend in the face, another murdered in a retaliatory drive-by, and many students and family members who committed suicide with firearms. 

Now, as a local policymaker, I join dozens of peers across our state seeking to make smart and proven choices to promote public health and reduce violence. When we are asked what we are doing to reduce violence, most of us will answer, “everything we can.” We invest heavily in preventative care, neighborhood reinvestment, cutting-edge investigative technology and higher wages for law enforcement officers, along with a host of other tactics to make our streets, homes and businesses safer. Here in Athens, we have invested millions of dollars in youth development efforts with a violence-prevention focus, treatment and rehabilitation for those that have suffered from behavioral health challenges, and have partnered with the Athens Housing Authority and private investors to breathe new life into historically under-invested neighborhoods.    

However, we cannot ignore that we need the support of state authorities to make the greatest difference in reducing gun violence. We live in a state that features gun homicides, suicides and accidents well above the levels of many other states. In Georgia, there are typically more than 1,800 gun deaths each year. This represents twice the per capita rate of gun deaths as in Minnesota and three times the rate of gun deaths as in Connecticut. These are not distant nations under separate national constitutions—these are other states here in this country, but states that do a better job laying a foundation for safety. In response to these circumstances, I am proud to be one of more than 50 Georgia mayors who are standing together to ask our governor and General Assembly for enhanced gun safety measures in Georgia. 

We are asking for a few simple provisions:

• Continued enhancement of behavioral health supports and funding.

• A level playing field for background checks that includes all purchases or transfers.

• Mechanisms that identify and prevent potential purchases by those who have been demonstrated to be at risk for illegal activity with guns.

• A focus on the specific weapons that are demonstrated to create rapid destruction through high capacity or rapid fire action.

• Requirements for safe storage of guns.

All of these suggestions are correlated with a higher degree of safety than we experience in Georgia, and all of them are popular in public opinion polls, including among many gun owners. If we could mirror the work of those states with reduced gun mortality, we could prevent hundreds of deaths, along with the trauma and pain that ripples across our cities from each unnecessary loss of life. 

Across the state, residents have immense appreciation for the great work done by the State Department of Economic Development, the Technical College System of Georgia, recent governors and others to attract so many high-paying jobs to Georgia. However, we should be sure that employers large and small and those longstanding or new to the state can welcome their employees to a Georgia that is as safe as possible from the boardroom to the breakroom, and from classrooms to living rooms. 

Just as the lax gun safety environment in Georgia harms our own residents, it casts a shadow across other states. Georgia is a net exporter of weapons used in crimes, including to New York City, where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found Georgia to be the top source of guns used in crimes there between 2017 and 2021. Just as we wish for our residents to be safe, stronger gun safety provisions would help us serve as good neighbors.

Perfect solutions don’t happen overnight, but nothing will change without sustained commitment, a commitment I join so many in holding. We should expect our state policymakers to understand and promote the benefits of improved gun safety so that we can highlight another point of pride as residents of the Peach State. This is what our neighbors, our children, and everyone who calls Georgia their home deserves.