Georgia gun law set to take effect, but gauging impact may take time

Georgia’s new gun law goes into effect Tuesday. It may take months, however, to say whether the controversy surrounding it is a tempest in a teapot or an actual storm.

“I think the only thing you’ll see six months down the road is no one will be shouting,” said Jerry Henry, the executive director of Georgia Carry, whose more than 7,300 members lobbied heavily for the law that expands where Georgians may legally carry firearms, including into public schools, bars, churches and government buildings under certain conditions.

But that doesn’t mean the law hasn’t already had noticeable effect.

Local officials who are mulling expensive new security measures in city halls, recreation centers and public works buildings say those costs could hit hundreds of thousands of dollars. The law doesn’t require that expense but now allows permitted gun owners to carry their weapons into government buildings — including parts of courthouses — where there is no security at the entrance. The extra security could prevent those weapons from being carried in.

“We’re working through it,” said Peggy Merriss, the city manager of Decatur, which is considering new screening equipment and security personnel that could cost upward of $400,000 to $500,000 — or much less, depending on what city officials decide. “Ultimately, the policy decision may be we don’t provide security and screening equipment and that may have to be a risk we absorb,” Merriss said.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, over the past several days posted dozens of new signs about the law, which explicitly allows guns in its public terminals (something that had been common practice before passage).

Some of the state’s highest-profile religious denominations, including leaders of Catholic, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, have expressly banned weapons in their sanctuaries. Others, including the Georgia Baptist Convention, have applauded the law’s provision letting individual places of worship decide whether to allow entry to someone carrying a gun.

Law enforcement leaders, including many who lobbied against legislation creating the law earlier this year, have held public information sessions and provided training for officers particularly on provisions banning them from demanding to see the weapons permit of someone they see carrying a gun.

School districts have also begun to make policy tweaks conforming with the law’s new mandate, although there seems to be little interest among them to let armed educators into their classrooms — as the law now allows.

“At this point we have not heard from a local board of education who is interested in implementing a policy for arming personnel,” Georgia School Boards Association spokesman Justin Pauly said in an email. “There are still lingering questions as to how and what the costs will be to implement a policy, which includes training, certification, monitoring, equipment, storage, insurance among other requirements.”

The effect of the law is being closely followed here and abroad. Its passage on the last day of the legislative session March 20 drew media attention from California to New York — and overseas from England, Canada and Germany.

High-profile opponents, including former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, have waged national campaigns against the bill. Supporters have been just as vocal, including the National Rifle Association, which dubbed the legislation “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history.”

Supporters say the law will prevent local authorities from creating a patchwork of conflicting rules and affirm private property rights and law-abiding citizens’ rights to defend themselves. From a national perspective, Georgia would be among a handful of states specifically allowing guns in churches, although more than a dozen others don’t specifically ban concealed weapons in places of worship, either. The state is also following the example of more than a dozen states that allow guns in bars and/or schools.

It’s up to local officials, however, to make the details of Georgia’s new gun law work. Earlier this month, Atlanta city schools Superintendent Erroll Davis recommended that his school board allow only trained police to bear arms in schools. Officials in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties had similar reactions.

“There have been no discussions about that,” said Samantha Evans, a spokeswoman for Fulton County Schools.

Cobb County school board member David Banks has received a few calls and emails from parents concerned about the new law and said he’d only vote for a guns-in-school policy if he were convinced it would do anything to reduce violence. Banks said he thinks shootings happen too fast for armed civilians to intervene, and he said he doesn’t think the threat of armed educators is going to deter someone on a murderous rampage.

“If they’re so demented that they’re going to do something like that, somebody with a gun is not going to stop them,” Banks said. He said the better course is to spot such “hard cases” before they act, though he acknowledged that is exceedingly difficult.

DeKalb schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond knows about the risk of dangerous people with guns. Last year, a man with a semi-automatic rifle entered Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy and fired shots, though he ultimately surrendered and no one was hurt. Gun advocates pointed to that incident as further evidence that teachers should be armed.

The elementary school invasion has weighed on Thurmond, who recommended and received eight new school resource officer positions in his district’s budget for the upcoming school year. But he does not foresee asking his school board to authorize more guns in school beyond those hanging from the hips of his officers.

“I don’t think it would make the DeKalb County school system safer,” Thurmond said. He said he has seen no objective evidence that weapons in civilian hands would deter those bent on violence. He also said he hadn’t received a single request from the community to arm his educators.

James Waddell, a parent, has often complained publicly about security at Southwest DeKalb High School, where his son attends. But Waddell, who is the incoming vice president of the school parent-teacher association and works as a corrections officer in Atlanta, only wants more cops with guns. He said guns in civilian hands would not make him feel that his son was any safer.

“What do guns do to make anything safer? We’ve got guns in Iraq and everybody’s being shot to death,” he said. “It’s crazy. We don’t want to arm teachers.”

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