Advocates lobby Georgia lawmakers to tighten state gun laws

A week after 17 people were gunned down at a Florida high school, several hundred gun control advocates gathered Wednesday at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to make changes to Georgia's firearms laws.

The Moms Demand Action day of lobbying lawmakers was already scheduled, but because gun-safety advocates began signing up in such large numbers following the shooting, the rally had to be moved from inside the state Capitol to the plaza across the street.

“We expected about 120 people last week. Look around you,” said Georgia Moms Demand Action organizer Dotan Harpak, drawing raucous cheers and chants of “not one more” from the crowd of about 1,000 people gathered at Liberty Plaza.

The shooting last week in Parkland, Fla., was the most deadly school incident since the organization was formed in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 young students and six adults.

Gun control groups nationwide have stepped up their efforts after the Parkland shooting. On Tuesday, students from the school traveled to their state Capitol to urge their lawmakers to consider a ban on automatic weapons.

The shooting has spurred many to action for the first time, including Suwanee resident Heather Beyer.

Beyer said she bought bullet-proof backpacks for her 6- and 13-year-old children. Beyer — who said she is a Republican gun owner who voted for President Donald Trump — said mass shootings have become “too much.”

“We have to protect our kids,” she said. “The background checks we do are insufficient. Something needs to be done.”

Gun control supporters filled the statehouse and legislative office building on Wednesday, lining the hallway outside each chamber and forming small groups around elected officials.

Advocates were trying to persuade lawmakers to pass firearms safety measures, including a proposal that would prevent those convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, and others that would ban bump stocks, a mechanism that allows semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns. Such a device was used by a gunman last fall in the massacre of 58 people in Las Vegas.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who backs several gun-safety bills, said she believes there is legislation that could and should be approved this year.

“We’re making progress even in Georgia, which is, as they like to say, a Second Amendment state,” she said. “There are voters who care about reducing gun violence.”

Still, she said, gun rights supporters often amend bills from the floor near the end of the session, quickly getting them through the legislative process with limited debate. Oliver said she will be watching for that this session.

Georgia's General Assembly has regularly approved loosening gun-carry laws. For example, Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation last year allowing people with concealed weapons permits to carry guns onto public college and university campuses.

House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said while he understands why people are concerned after the mass shooting in Florida, he is concerned about overreacting.

“I very well understand their concerns,” he said. “If something happened to one of my grandchildren, I don’t know what I’d do. (But) I worry about any legislative change that’s reactionary and not proactive.”

Powell, whose committee vets many bills dealing with gun laws, said he would look closely at statements Trump made Tuesday regarding the regulation of bump stocks.

Gun control supporters said they were unconvinced Trump would ever take sides against the National Rifle Association, pointing to the $30 million the gun rights organization donated to the president’s 2016 campaign.

If the U.S. Department of Justice moves forward with Trump’s request to ban bump stocks, Powell said he’s not sure there’s a need for the Georgia legislation.

Powell said he agrees that certain people, such as felons and those convicted of certain domestic violence crimes, should not have access to guns.

“It’s not the guns as much as it’s the finger that’s pulling the trigger,” he said. “So many kids, all they know is social networking. … There’s a disconnect between what is reality and what is not.”

While gun-safety advocates rallied outside, state Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, said from the Senate floor that the problem is the lack of prayer in public schools, not the weapons. Williams, who is running for governor, also pointed to the violence children see in films and online.

“We can take guns away, but that will not eliminate the violence that plagues our society,” he said. “I hope we can have a real conversation.”

The debate over firearms has become a focus in the race to succeed Deal, which features two Democrats and five Republicans.

Both Democrats have called for stiff new gun restrictions, marking a shift for their party's candidates for governor in Georgia. Though national Democrats have long advocated for sweeping gun control measures, their Georgia counterparts have been reluctant to echo their pledges.

For example, Roy Barnes, the state's last Democratic governor, earned the NRA's endorsement during his 1998 and 2002 runs.

Attendees at Wednesday’s rally said gun control is an issue that will define who they vote for in November.

Jake Busch, an 18-year-old senior at Chamblee Charter High School, said he and his friends are looking forward to being able to vote in their first election this year.

“Teen voters are the next generation of leaders,” Busch said. “It’s an uphill battle, but more teens are starting a movement. I think it really begins with us.”

Julia Koenig of Sandy Springs said her daughter, a senior at Riverwood International Charter School, came home after the Florida shooting and said she felt like adults “don’t care.”

“As a mom what do you say?” Koenig said. “That was sort of, for me, the impetus to say it’s time to stand up and do something.”

Beyer, the Gwinnett mom, said her teenage daughter also was spurred to action by the Florida shooting and plans to participate in a 17-minute national school walkout being organized for March 14.

“Posting on Facebook with sad faces isn’t doing anything,” Beyer said. “But I can control who I vote for, and I can control where my dollars go. I usually vote straight-ticket Republican. I’m about to start changing that if they won’t support common sense gun reform.”

Staff writers Ariel Hart and Vanessa McCray contributed to this article.