Georgia's new gun law and Jason Carter's conundrum

Last week, two days before Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law the gun bill that has brought our state so much national attention, his Democratic challenger appeared before a friendly MSNBC camera.

After the inoffensive preliminaries, interviewer Chuck Todd raised a most delicate issue for state Sen. Jason Carter and his still-young campaign for governor.

When HB 60 passed the General Assembly last month, Carter was one of only four Democratic lawmakers to support the measure – and the sole Democrat in the Senate to do so. So why did he vote for a measure that puts more concealed weaponry in bars, churches, schools and many – if not most – government buildings?

“I know a lot of national Democrats and others have been upset or angry about this, and I’ve heard from a lot of them,” said Carter, who, like Deal, pointed out that more objectionable features of the legislation, such as a campus-carry provision, had been removed.

“But ultimately,” Carter said, “you’re talking about people who have a license to carry in a state where the Second Amendment is incredibly important.”

On the topic of arming school personnel, the grandson of the former president spoke like a man trying to stand astride two stampeding horses.

“There’s not an issue that I know of that’s more geographically polarizing than guns,” he said. “There are some communities in my state that will feel safer if their school districts are allowed to make those decisions. And there are other communities where they won’t. And those communities will get to decide for themselves.”

That was Carter’s final spoken word on the matter last week. He and his campaign refused all invitations to elaborate. Carter even ducked a reporter at Thursday’s state Democratic party fundraiser in Atlanta.

Democrats have now been out of power for a dozen years in Georgia. They’ve gotten a bit rusty when it comes to the topic of firearms. That goes for both candidates and the rank-and-file.

We forget the extent to which Democratic governors were allied with the National Rifle Association in the old days. In both his 1998 and 2002 campaigns for governor, Roy Barnes carried the imprimatur of the NRA. In 2003, on a trip through Atlanta in anticipation of his run for president the next year, former Vermont Gov. Howard “Yeehaw” Dean touted his NRA credentials.

Carter well understands this. One clue to his statewide ambitions has been that fact that, while he represents a relatively liberal Atlanta enclave, Carter carries an “A” rating from the NRA – and that was before his vote for HB 60 last month.

In fact, you might say that Carter has been channeling his inner Zell Miller, who first gave voice to the need for Georgia Democrats – and national ones – to stay on the right side of gun owners.

In the early 1990s, efforts to stop the spread of Saturday night specials and assault weapons with week-long waiting periods and stiffer background checks were highly popular – even in the South. “It was polling, like 90-10, in a Democratic primary,” said Keith Mason, Miller’s chief of staff.

Miller resisted jumping on board, but couldn’t explain why until his pollster fashioned a question that went something like this: When I hear a candidate talk about gun control, I sometimes wonder if he or she shares my values.

“That’s where the number flips,” Mason said. “I’m sure some of that was playing into Jason’s thinking. He probably didn’t want to have this election about some social issue.”

Carter has made Republican cuts to education a centerpiece of his campaign. It’s a topic that resonates in rural Georgia. As does the gun issue. Credibility on one issue rests on the other.

But we are not in the 1990s. The dead school children of Sandy Hook Elementary School may not have been able to stir Congress, but they have had an impact. “I don’t think the NRA enjoys the level of support among some of the politicians of the country that it did before — particularly after some of these situations that have occurred,” Mason said. “There have been some unfortunate comments made by people on both sides.”

Earlier this week, I indulged in the theory that damage caused by Carter’s support of the gun bill would be limited to his national fundraising efforts. But the impact may be broader, and more subtle.

After Deal signed the gun bill, Democratic fundraiser Kristin Oblander of Atlanta sent a message to her friends via Twitter, noting that she owned both a shotgun and pistol (and a concealed carry permit). But HB 60 was a bad bill, she said.

“I’m all for self-protection, but this goes a step beyond that,” the fundraiser said.

Oblander is an entrenched Democrat. Her support for Carter can’t be shaken by a single vote. That may not be the case for others. Voter enthusiasm among minorities and women is a large part of the formula for turning Georgia from red to blue, and the state’s new gun law is unlikely to poll well with women as a whole.

The supposition is that, because Deal and Carter's positions on the gun bill are identical, Carter would be protected from GOP attack. But in this new age of Super PACs, it would surprise no one if a Republican pot of money is waiting in reserve to make female voters aware of Carter’s role in the passage of HB 60.

In other words, Carter’s support for HB 60 and his silence are two parts of the same conundrum. He couldn’t cast a vote against the gun bill, but he doesn’t dare brag about it.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.