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Can We Even Talk About Guns?

Georgia’s senators were caught in a political crossfire last week because of their vote on a gun control bill in the U.S. Senate.

Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson were not voting for passage of the bill, which would expand the system of background checks to try to keep firearms away from convicted felons and the mentally deranged.  They were merely taking a procedural vote to allow senators to talk about the gun control bill during floor debate.

“I think it deserves a vote up or down,” Isakson said in a TV interview.

Because they voted for the piddling step of allowing debate on the bill, Chambliss and Isakson set off a firestorm of outrage among conservative Republicans who felt they had been betrayed by the senators. Here’s one of the milder comments from a conservative website:  “Since the Democrats have a clear majority, senators like Johnny Isakson should just stay home . . . If you’re not up to the task, then go back to Georgia and run for your county school board.”

That anger among the Republican base won’t bother Chambliss, because he announced a while back he isn’t running for reelection.  It could cause some grief for Isakson, however, if he decides to run for another term in 2016.

Isakson’s stand is an interesting one in a state where even talking about gun control will earn you not only criticism but threats on your life. It was just a year ago that state Rep. Ann Purcell (R-Rincon), as the chair of a legislative committee, would not let out of committee a bill allowing people to carry guns in public without having to obtain a permit. She received death threats from gun carry activists that were so severe the GBI was called in to investigate.  Purcell also decided against running for another term in the Georgia House.

I wondered if Isakson’s decision to allow debate on the current gun bill was an early sign that he had decided not to run again in 2016.  One of his top supporters quickly told me that was not the case.

“Johnny has made it clear he intends to run in 2016,” said the Isakson supporter. “I’m currently organizing a fundraiser for his 2016 campaign that will take place later this month.

“This far in advance of the 2016 primary and general election, I doubt seriously if his actions or his vote will make much difference when he stands for re-election. And, frankly, that may be a shame, because he is right.”

Isakson is a savvy politician who knows when the electoral landscape is shifting.  More and more of his Republican supporters live in suburban areas where parents worry about the dangers of random gun violence toward their kids.  Fewer and fewer voters live in rural areas where guns and hunting are an ingrained part of the culture. 

Gov. Nathan Deal could face a choice similar to Isakson’s next year.  The General Assembly considered but ultimately did not pass a bill in the recent session that would have opened up college campuses and K-12 schools to guns and would have made it easier for mentally ill persons to obtain firearms permits. Gun carry advocates will be back lobbying for that bill’s passage next year, and I strongly suspect it will pass.  

Deal, by then, will be in the middle of a vigorous reelection campaign.  The governor will have to decide whether he wants to sign a bill that could bring on gun violence among school kids and college students, or whether he can survive the political damage that would result if he vetoes it.

Isakson decided to stand up to that faction within his party.  What will the governor do?