Jim Cooley created a stir when he walked through parts of Hartsfield-Jackson's main terminal this week with an assault rifle.
Photo: Jim Cooley/Channel 2 Action News
Photo: Jim Cooley/Channel 2 Action News

How guns became legal at Hartsfield-Jackson

Going to the world’s busiest airport with a rifle slung across your chest isn’t just an unusual way of dropping off a family member for a flight. It’s a political statement putting an exclamation point on years of back-and-forth on gun rights at Hartsfield-Jackson International.

Winder resident and political activist Jim Cooley attracted police attention and headlines this week by toting an AR-15 to Hartsfield-Jackson while taking his daughter to the airport. He then complained when airport police asked him questions and followed him, though they did not detain or arrest him.

Gun rights activists and others say what Cooley did was perfectly legal.

“He wasn’t breaking any laws,” said Scott Berry, the sheriff in Oconee County, a vocal gun rights supporter. Still, Berry noted: “a slung rifle is an attention-getting device.”

“If the officers did follow him, they’re well within their rights to do that as well,” Berry said. “If he doesn’t want to be followed, then maybe he shouldn’t draw that kind of attention to himself.”

The history of gun rights in the Atlanta airport terminal over the past eight years is riddled with bills, legal fights and confusion.

It is still against the law to carry a gun through airport security checkpoints. Prior to 2008, it was also against the law to carry a gun anywhere in the airport terminal, said GeorgiaCarry.org executive director Jerry Henry.

Then, Georgia passed a law loosening gun restrictions and allowing owners to carry guns on public transportation.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and then-airport manager Ben DeCosta then declared the airport a “gun-free zone,” saying it qualified as a public gathering where concealed guns were still not allowed.

GeorgiaCarry.org sued the city, eventually losing both the initial ruling and an appeal.

But in 2010, Georgia’s legislature passed another bill increasing gun rights. After some initial confusion, the city of Atlanta’s legal department reviewed the law and concluded that it could not prohibit guns in the terminal. A so-called “guns everywhere” law in 2014 reinforced the right, extending it to all Georgia airports.

The police report from the airport incident involving Cooley notes it is not illegal to carry a weapon, but “there was a concern for the safety of the patrons within the airport.”

The report adds: “Multiple patrons showed concerns on their faces as they observed the assault rifle weapon openly carried across his chest.”

Cooley is no stranger to political fights. He ran unsuccessfully for Winder city council in 2011 and for mayor of a small town in Indiana in the 1990s. Last year he was arrested after carrying a firearm during a demonstration at a Buford City school board meeting.

He also participates in Overpasses For America, whose members hold signs over expressways. “There are all different kinds of signs,” Cooley said, “like ‘Abolish the IRS,’ ‘Obama’s lying,’ you know, ‘Obama needs to be arrested.’ ”

He stood firm Wednesday in his contention that police should not have asked what he was doing, even in a crowded airport.

“When you have a right to do something, it should never be questioned,” Cooley said.

Henry of GeorgiaCarry.org said from what he saw, “police did what they were supposed to do.” And Cooley “did what he felt he should do.”

Henry said as long as Cooley is not violating the law, he should be able to exercise his rights. “I exercise my rights in one way, he wants to do it in another way.”

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