Republican candidates for governor Casey Cagle, from left, Hunter Hill, Brian Kemp, Clay Tippins and Michael Williams participate Thursday in the Atlanta Press Club Republican primary debate at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia GOP candidates battle over who’s strongest gun rights defender

The five leading Republican candidates for Georgia governor tried to separate themselves from the field during a debate Thursday, making an appeal to conservative voters on gun rights and illegal immigration.

With Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle leading in the polls, the rest of the candidates might be racing for second place in Tuesday’s primary. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff July 24.

Several candidates took aim at former state Sen. Hunter Hill during the debate presented by the Atlanta Press Club and aired live by Georgia Public Broadcasting.

They questioned Hill’s commitment to the Second Amendment after he suggested the age to buy a gun should be raised to 21. Hill said he previously misspoke, and he wants the age to buy a handgun lowered to 18 — the same age Georgians can buy a long gun.

“Having fought in three combat tours overseas, I know what it’s like to have my life threatened,” said Hill, who represented a district in Cobb and Fulton counties. “It’s wrong to have folks that have put their lives in harm’s way and come home and not be able to defend their families.”

Cagle, who killed a tax break for Delta Air Lines this year after it discontinued a discount for the National Rifle Association, said Hill has shown that he’s not a true defender of the right to bear arms.

“During campaign time, people will talk one way, but you have to look at the record,” Cagle said. “Look at my record defending the Second Amendment and expanding our gun rights. I’ve been able to do that, and that’s why I have the NRA endorsement.”

Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL and businessman, also focused on Hill, saying his record on gun rights can’t be trusted. Tippins has previously targeted Hill in an ad that portrayed him as a traitor like Benedict Arnold.

Tippins said Hill’s shifting views are baffling.

“Give me a break. The dog ate my homework and I didn’t understand is not a good enough excuse,” Tippins said. “I absolutely think Hunter Hill and his support for Second Amendment rights to be treacherous.”

The candidates also tried to cast doubt on Cagle’s conservative credentials, saying he’s a career politician who wouldn’t stand against liberals.

“I’m tired of politicians that they know all the right things to say, but when they get elected they do something different,” said state Sen. Michael Williams of Cumming. “We need somebody in our state that’s going to stand up against those who are trying to take away our rights.”

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who aired an ad in which he said he’d use his truck to round up immigrants himself, said his campaign is focused on deporting people in the country without authorization and fighting gang violence.

“Georgia unfortunately has become a hub to the Mexican drug cartels,” Kemp said. “We’re going to run those criminal illegals out of our state.”

The Republican nominee will face the winner of the Democratic primary between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. The general election is Nov. 6.

Only one debate remains between the Republican candidates for governor before Election Day on Tuesday. That debate, hosted by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will air live Sunday at 2 p.m.

The Democratic candidates will also debate live on Channel 2 on Sunday at 1 p.m.

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