U.S. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) speaks with media following a talk at the Kiwanis Atlanta Club luncheon meeting at the Loudermilk Conference Center in downtown Atlanta, Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Calls for ‘red flag’ gun laws put focus on Georgia Republican leaders

President Donald Trump’s support for “red flag” gun laws after twin mass shootings left at least 31 people dead in Ohio and Texas poses a challenge for Georgia Republicans who have long resisted firearm restrictions.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday that he was “closely monitoring” discussions in Washington over the legislation after Trump endorsed “extreme risk protection orders” that could let authorities take firearms from a person deemed by a court to be dangerous.

“As we review these proposals, we will solicit input from the law enforcement community, subject-matter experts in behavioral and mental health, and advocacy groups to best inform our analysis,” Kemp said in a statement.

Kemp’s stance was immediately blasted by top state Democrats, who advocate for new gun restrictions, more stringent background checks for purchases and bans on assault-style weapons. The state Democratic Party labeled it an “empty promise.”

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Other Georgia Republicans were noncommittal. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is running for a second term in 2020, said he hasn’t decided whether he would explore the “red flag” legislation.

“The thing that’s been missing in this issue is really both sides trying to work on it in a bipartisan manner. That’s why I’m encouraged by some of these things that we’re talking about going further,” he said after a speech to the Kiwanis Club in Atlanta. “I still think there’s a lot of work to do here.” 

State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, applauded Trump for his "leadership and willingness to engage in a bipartisan dialog." 

 “I am hesitant to offer an opinion on possible federal legislation," he said, "and will leave that to Georgia’s members of Congress." 

One member of the state's congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, sponsored legislation in June that would allow police or family members to seek court orders temporarily restricting people from obtaining firearms if they pose a danger to themselves or others. The bill has yet to make any progress.

Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said it's too early to comment on "red flag" legislation.

Several other Georgia Republican leaders did not immediately respond to requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for comment. 

The debate is a tricky one for state Republicans who campaign on promises to vastly expand gun rights. That’s true for Kemp, whose provocative ads last year featured him pointing a shotgun toward an actor purporting to court his teenage daughter.

Already, gun rights activists are pressuring Perdue and other Republicans to oppose “red flag” rules, saying they are a threat to Second Amendment rights. Perdue faces two announced Democratic challengers who both call for new gun limits.

Debbie Dooley, a conservative activist, urged the readers of her mailing list to press Perdue and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson to oppose the legislation, and she threatened not to vote for Trump or any other Republican that supports the idea in 2020.  

“You don’t reward betrayal,” she said, “or it will happen again and again.” 

Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) and House Speaker David Ralston, delivered his first state of the state address. Kemp released his first budget, which is expected to include a $5,000 pay raise for teachers Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

'Do something'

Trump didn’t specify what type of “red flag” law he would support, and it’s unclear whether he is pursuing a federal statute or wants states to take them on. At least 15 states have passed such laws, and most of them did so after the 2017 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday proposed adopting a version of “red flag” legislation, two days after the Republican was drowned out by shouts of “Do something!” at a vigil for mass shooting victims in Dayton.

Georgia does not have any similar laws on the books, but in February, state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat, filed House Bill 435 to allow state residents and law enforcement officers to ask a superior court judge to determine whether someone is a threat.

“Red flag legislation is a fantastic start,” Wilson said. “But if you listen to the experts and the victims, they’re calling for a national conversation. That’s really what we need. This isn’t a problem that any one bill will fix.”

Gun rights activists in Georgia consider the legislation a threat to Second Amendment protections. Jerry Henry of Georgia Carry said the laws would deprive residents of due process guarantees and predicted they’re “not going to do anything” to save lives.

Federal law prohibits those who have been involuntarily hospitalized for mental health treatment from purchasing guns, but Georgia law requires the state to purge records of those hospitalizations after five years.

State lawmakers in recent years have introduced bills to rid the state of that law, but those bills didn’t pass. Similarly, a Democratic proposal that aims to keep guns out of the hands of those convicted of family violence charges has stalled in the Legislature.

In Washington, where Democrats demanded swift approval of gun-control legislation and Republicans focused on mental health and violence in the media, there appears little chance of breaking the gridlock. 

Perdue, however, suggested that this time could be different. 

“The point is, in two weeks you guys will be talking about something else and you won’t be highlighting this. We’re all guilty of this. I am, you are, we all are,” the Republican said to reporters.

“Let’s not let that happen this time,” he said. “Let’s pressure both parties to work to a bipartisan solution.” 

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Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.