Bill proposes massive overhaul to Georgia gun laws

In addition to banishing many current restrictions, House Bill 981 would prevent police or the National Guard from disarming people during states of emergency, and it would allow citizens to sue if that occurred.

Rep. Sean Jerguson, R-Woodstock, one of the bill's co-sponsors, said Thursday that it strikes a balance between the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms, and personal property rights. For instance, any church or business, such as a restaurant or bar, would be able to decide whether to allow concealed weapons, he said, and regulations that limit the right to carry, such as when consuming alcohol, are still in place.

Critics say it goes too far and could endanger the public.

Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, introduced a bill this session that would require four hours of training for anyone who gets a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The bill, which he described as "common sense," has yet to have a hearing in a committee.

Bruce said he does not understand why gun rights supporters have filed so many bills in recent legislative sessions to loosen requirements for carrying deadly weapons and allowing them in places such as schools.

"I keep trying to figure out what they are preparing for?" he said. "Is there some war they have to be ready for? Is there something pending that the rest of us need to know about?"

It's too soon to gauge the success of HB 981. Legislative leaders have been moving with slow deliberation this year, saying they want to fix problems such as the crisis created by a state Supreme Court ruling striking down the state's ability to set up charter schools, and address other important issues such as the budget. There has been little appetite to move on less critical and hotly contested bills that would take up time in committees and floor debates.

Jerguson predicted hearty debate over the bill. Lawmakers previously tried to pass many of HB 981's proposed rules during previous legislative sessions. A bill passed in 2010 expanded where those with concealed carry permits could take their guns, but churches, colleges and schools were excluded from that law.

Some college students and others have advocated for guns to be allowed on campuses following recent attacks on or near Georgia Tech, Georgia State and the Atlanta University Center. While those incidents didn't prompt the legislation, some lawmakers said it explains why the bill is needed.

Only people older than 21 can get a concealed weapons permit, which would limit the number of college students eligible.

Twenty-two states currently ban carrying a  concealed weapon on college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 11 states, including Georgia, have bills that would in some way allow guns on campuses, the group says.

University System of Georgia officials have repeatedly supported maintaining the current law, which prohibits people from carrying guns on college campuses. Students can't keep weapons in dorms or classrooms, but they may keep them locked in their cars.

Georgia Tech and other colleges say campus security already works to keep students safe. Tech police recently purchased a mobile surveillance system to monitor locations around campus. The college has urged students to register for Jacket Guardian, a free mobile tool that enhances police response.

Robert Eagar, a junior at Georgia Tech, said being able to carry a gun will let students feel safe while walking home. Eagar, who leads Tech's chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, said there have been no incidents at colleges where concealed carry is permitted.

"Individuals should have the same right to protect themselves on campus as they do off campus," he said.

Eager said he appreciated other changes promoted within the bill. Changes in the legislation include banning firearms registration, legalizing hunting with silencers and preventing state agencies from regulating gun shows.

Some students worry about allowing guns on campus considering problems already exist with underage drinking.

"This is ridiculous," said Alex Rowell, a University of Georgia freshman. "I don't think I'd feel any safer knowing another student was carrying a gun."

Jerguson said he has heard criticism in the past that there will be bad consequences from people carrying guns, but that has not happened since 2008, when a law allowed carrying weapons into restaurants where alcohol is served.

"The opposition used that clause ‘the Wild West,' " he said. "But you know how many incidents there have been since 2008? None."

"We will see some of that this time," Jerguson said. "I think there will be a good, healthy debate."

Carrying concealed weapons

House Bill 981 would allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry guns on almost all public properties. Exceptions include jail, courtrooms and nuclear facilities. Here are some places where guns would be permitted:

Public schools and colleges

Bars and restaurants

Places of worship

Polling places

Government buildings, including the state Capitol

Source: House Bill 981

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