Gun carry expansion bill to get hearing

Carrying guns in public might only be outlawed at the courthouse and the jailhouse under one of at least two major firearms bills expected to be before state lawmakers this year.

Lawmakers don’t officially converge on the state Capitol until next week for a session expected to focus mainly on bleak revenues and budget cuts.

But already the firearms bill that might bring about the most sweeping changes is set Thursday to go before a House committee for a first hearing.

Its sponsor, state Rep. Tim Bearden (R-Villa Rica), championed the law change in 2008 that allows Georgians who have the proper permits to carry guns at state parks, on mass transit and in restaurants where alcohol is served. Some areas of airports also would have been covered, but that provision was thrown out in court.

The law is believed to have helped spark a statewide increase in gun permit applications.

Bearden’s latest bill would eliminate almost all of Georgia’s public assembly restrictions, including those for churches and college campuses. Exceptions would keep guns out of courthouses, prisons and other facilities that house criminals.

“This bill will finally clarify for citizens, judges and law enforcement where you can and cannot carry your firearm,” said Bearden, a former police officer.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) has his own firearms bill in the works.

Like Bearden’s bill, Seabaugh’s legislation is expected to zero in on the public gathering restrictions, but it would also make clear that guns would be banned from government buildings, courtrooms, jails and prisons, private and public K-12 schools, and student housing on college campuses.

Additionally, he said, his bill, which he is expected to introduce next week, would let private property owners decide whether they want to allow guns on their property. This would include churches, restaurants and bars.

“The driving force is clarity, not expansion” of the existing law, said Seabaugh, who was chairman of a study committee on the topic.

Seabaugh called the existing law "vague and confusing," saying that "even law enforcement has widespread confusion over how to enforce the law."

Both bills are expected to be opposed by gun safety groups, as well as organizations that are against allowing firearms on college campuses.

The University System of Georgia supports the current law, which outlaws guns within 1,000 feet of a college campus by anyone other than law enforcement, spokesman John Millsaps said.

Alice Johnson, founder of Georgians for Gun Safety, said her group will oppose Bearden’s bill and the loosening of restrictions on guns on college campuses and at schools and day care centers.

“We opposed that, believing there are some places where guns do not belong at all except in the hands of law enforcement,” Johnson said.

Bearden and Seabaugh both acknowledge that their bills will have tough competition for legislators’ attention, with major issues such as the budget and unemployment looming.

“But I also think this is a very important issue, especially with the Second Amendment applying to states hanging in the Supreme Court,” Bearden said. “We’ll give it a shot.”

The Supreme Court is expected sometime this year to hear McDonald v. City of Chicago, a lawsuit challenging a city gun-control ordinance. Some gun groups have expressed concern that it could lead to tighter restrictions.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle last year said he had “no appetite” for revisiting the state’s concealed weapons law.

This week, spokeswoman Jailene Hunter said Cagle’s top priorities for this year’s session are balancing the budget and job creation. “However, he looks forward to discussing this issue, as well as a host of others, with senators,” Hunter said.

Jerry Henry, executive director of the gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.Org, said his organization is backing Bearden’s bill.

“The really bad thing about Georgia gun laws is they are so vague. ... It takes an attorney -- almost -- to find out if [you have the right to carry a gun],” Henry said. “Laws should be black and white.”

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