Photo Credit: Dede Giddens
The belligerent guy at the bar. The classmate who just flunked his test. Even the parishioner in the church pew behind you. If Georgia Republicans get their way, they all could be packing.
The Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT massacres last year sparked calls for stricter gun control in many quarters. But gun sales also shoot up after such tragedies nationwide, including in Athens, where Probate Court issued 574 carry licenses in 2011, 699 in 2012 and 314 in the first two months of 2013 alone.
In Georgia, Republican state legislators want to make it easier—not harder—to carry guns around young people and in places where tempers often flare. They proposed bills this year to allow permit holders to take their weapons into bars, churches and many government buildings and on college campuses—where they're now forbidden—and school administrators to carry guns, among other provisions. Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper) combined those proposals into House Bill 512.
State Rep. Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville) said he wishes the legislature had left the gun issue alone after Newtown. But he voted for HB 512 nonetheless.
"Firearms issues tend to be emotional, and it can be difficult to have rational firearms dialogue in normal times, much less in the wake of a tragedy such as Newtown," Williams said. "That being said, I feel that the bill passed by the House strikes a reasonable balance on all fronts. "
Safety at Stake
Throughout the gun control debate of the past few months, conservatives and the gun lobby have taken the position that preventing mass shootings is a mental health issue, not a gun control issue. State Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens) called HB 512 "a step in the right direction" because it requires probate judges to deny carry licenses to people who've been involuntarily committed for mental illness in the past five years, as well as "eliminating unnecessary restrictions on Second Amendment rights."
However, the bill would still allow mentally ill people to carry firearms, noted state Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens). He said he voted against it for that reason, and because it doesn't close a loophole for private gun sales without background checks or allow parents to remove their children from schools where guns would be present.
The House passed HB 512 on a largely party-line vote Mar. 11 over the objections of the state's university system, clergymen and an Atlanta-based group of mothers called Moms Demand Action. It's now in the Senate.
Hank Huckaby, a former state legislator and University of Georgia administrator who's now university system chancellor, told a House committee it would put students at risk, not make them safer.
"Each of the police chiefs of our campuses agree with me," Huckaby said. "They are charged with keeping the public safety on our campuses, and they will tell you allowing students to have weapons on campus make their jobs harder, not easier—more dangerous, not safer.
" Our campus counselors will likely tell you the same thing. The reality of our modern campuses is we have students who come to us with a variety of personal issues which create stress; they are on medications.
" Many develop issues after coming to our campuses. I am not suggesting that every student is a ticking time bomb—far from it. I am suggesting that adding loaded weapons to an already potentially volatile mix of youthful exuberance, stress, and, yes, at times alcohol and other factors, could lead to a tragedy of our own making that we could otherwise avoid."
While a handful of UGA students Flagpole interviewed supported HB 512 or were ambivalent about it, the majority opposed it. "It's a terrible idea," said Indira Martinez.
"A university campus is supposed to be a place where people feel safe to learn and use the facilities without being afraid of someone attacking them," Martinez said. "I wouldn't feel safe knowing that just anybody walking around could have a gun in their pocket."
Studies back up Martinez's fear. Seven of the 10 states with the strictest gun laws are also among the 10 with the lowest rates of gun deaths, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Conversely, out of the 25 states with the most gun crimes per capita, the center graded 24 states' gun laws a D or lower—including Georgia.
HB 512 would let colleges and universities decide whether to allow guns on campus, except for dorms and sporting events, where they'd remain banned. The same goes for bars and churches; they'd be able to set the rules about guns on their property.
But for Athens bar owner Paul DeGeorge, even giving him a choice is crossing a line. "You're begging for trouble" mixing guns with impaired judgement, said DeGeorge, a self-described gun owner and Second Amendment supporter. "It's a bad environment to have access to something like that. There's too many brawls."
Religious leaders contacted by Flagpole—including representatives from Congregation Children of Israel, Emmanuel Episcopal Church and Oconee Street United Methodist Church—also did not want guns in their places of worship, saying they're not appropriate places for symbols of violence and would distract from prayer. (Rabbi Eric Linder added that it would ultimately be up to the temple's board of trustees.)
"I have heard only a couple of parishioners speaking about the bill," said the Rev. Robert Salamone, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal. "There were no cheers being raised."
"I'm not convinced church is the appropriate place for any symbol or any instrument of violence to be focused on as a representation of something good," Salamone said. "Emmanuel will certainly not be frisking anyone, but I would hope to have a clear and positive and visible message available about Emmanuel being a community as well as a place of peace, love and non-violence."
HB 512's provision allowing school districts to arm administrators was pitched by original sponsor Paul Battles (R-Cartersville) as a cheaper alternative to the National Rifle Association's plan to post more armed guards in schools.
In Clarke County, administrators and police revised security protocols post-Newtown. Every school has an emergency plan; police train at schools and patrol around schools more frequently; school resource officers are armed in middle and high schools; high schools are also patrolled by civilian security guards; integrated security systems with cameras, alarms and motion detectors are being installed; and security vestibules separate from the rest of buildings are being built at school entrances, according to Clarke County School District spokeswoman Anisa Sullivan Jimenez.
"With all of our security measures in place, Superintendent [Philip] Lanoue does not support additional guns beyond those carried by SROs in our schools," she said.
HB 512 is not only unpopular among school officials, students, bar owners, law enforcement and the clergy. The general public doesn't like it, either. More than 80 percent of Americans favor universal background checks, including at gun shows, numerous polls show. A recent "11 Alive"/Survey USA poll found that 56 percent of Georgians supported bans on high-capacity clips and military-style assault weapons proposed by President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats; 64 percent opposed allowing guns in churches and 65 percent opposed guns on campus.
Polling data, though, is little match for paranoia. As Athens' U.S. Rep. Paul Broun—who has suggested that Obama is raising a private army to declare himself dictator—told a town hall meeting last month, according to Dacula Patch: “The reason behind the Second Amendment and the original intent was to protect our liberty, for us to be able to protect our lives and our property, but also to protect ourselves from being overrun by our own government.”
And the gun lobby is powerful enough to overcome public opinion. The National Rifle Association spent $25 million on ads during the 2012 campaign, mostly praising Republicans and attacking Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Under the Gold Dome, gun rights groups like GeorgiaCarry.org are extremely influential because lawmakers live in fear of challenges from their right on hot-button issues like guns and abortion. Over the past five years, GeorgiaCarry ushered through legislation extending gun rights to restaurants, parks and buses, and allowing people with marijuana convictions to own guns. It also successfully sued cities like Athens-Clarke County to overturn local gun bans. It's now behind HB 512.