— Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry
“All of the sheriffs of Georgia support Second Amendment rights, but this bill takes it too far with the sacrifice of lives to satisfy only a few people.”
— Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore
A broad expansion of gun rights that Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Wednesday has divided the state’s law enforcement community, leading some sheriffs to warn that the changes endanger police officers and will lead to more bloodshed.
Deal, however, said House Bill 60 allows "people who follow the rules" to protect themselves and their families "from people who don't follow the rules."
The legislation expands where Georgians may legally carry firearms, including into public schools, bars, churches and government buildings. A recent analysis from the nonpartisan state Senate Research Office noted that felons could use the state's "stand your ground" rules to claim self-defense in a shooting if they feel threatened.
The new law also repeals state law requiring firearms dealers to obtain state licenses and maintain records of firearm sales and purchases, and it revokes the governor’s authority to suspend or limit the carrying or sale of guns even in case of emergencies.
It’s prompted a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by some prominent sheriffs who urged Deal to veto the bill. In records obtained through Georgia’s sunshine laws, they express fears that the new rules will herald a flood of lawsuits and hinder police work. At worst, they say, it could lead to more injuries and deaths of peace officers.
The measure’s supporters, though, reject those criticisms as hyperbole. And at least one outspoken sheriff called the changes overdue, saying they send an unequivocal message to law enforcement that law-abiding gun owners shouldn’t be unfairly scrutinized.
The legislation, which critics have dubbed the “guns everywhere” law, was bound to be controversial no matter the context. But the election-year timing gives it added meaning. A surprise veto would have given Deal’s challengers an opening to exploit in the run-up to the May 20 GOP primary.
At the signing ceremony, Deal said: “The Second Amendment should never be an afterthought. It should reside at the forefronts of our minds.”
In a sign of the gun lobby’s power, even state Sen. Jason Carter, the Democratic candidate for governor, voted for the legislation — disappointing opponents of HB 60 who launched a campaign Wednesday to push “gun sense voters” toward the polls.
“There’s something rotten in Georgia politics, and we intend to root it out,” said Piyali Cole with the Georgia Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “We will not stop until these laws are overturned.”
‘Comprehensive pro-gun reform’
The new changes are so sweeping the National Rifle Association called them the “most comprehensive pro-gun reform” in state history. Among the most contentious changes are provisions that legalize the use of silencers for hunting, clear the way for school staffers to carry guns in schools and let leaders of religious congregations choose whether to allow licensed gun holders to carry firearms inside.
Another part of the measure allows permitted gun owners to carry their weapons in government buildings — including parts of courthouses — where there is no security at the entrance. That particular provision sparked outcry from hundreds of municipalities, and law enforcement officers warned it could have disastrous consequences.
“I am at a loss to figure out why a person would need to carry a firearm into the courthouse or any other government building, for that matter, that alone is a recipe for disaster,” Twiggs County Sheriff Darren Mitchum wrote in a letter to Deal. “This is a disaster looking for a place to happen, not if, but where and when.”
Yet sheriffs raised the loudest alarms over a part of the bill that bans police from demanding to see the weapons permit of someone carrying a gun. Several worried that the language essentially moots any requirement for gun owners to carry licenses since officers won’t be allowed to stop someone to check their permits unless they have cause to do so.
“All of the sheriffs of Georgia support Second Amendment rights, but this bill takes it too far with the sacrifice of lives to satisfy only a few people,” Ben Hill County Sheriff Bobby McLemore said. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills warned it will result in a “plethora of other grievous unintended consequences.”
When asked specifically about the sheriffs’ letters Wednesday, Deal said: “I have not had those concerns expressed to me.”
The dissension from sheriffs is not unanimous. Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry said officers should have no more right to demand papers from someone carrying a gun than they should be able to stop a driver without cause to see his license.
“In my opinion the license language in HB 60 is a direct message to the peace officers of Georgia that honest, law abiding citizens have the right to proceed unhindered and unobstructed in their daily lives and should not be subject to intense law enforcement scrutiny due to the fact they choose to lawfully carry a firearm,” Berry wrote.
Jerry Henry of the advocacy group Georgia Carry, said the law prevents officers from abusing rules that he compares to the “show me your papers” laws of 1930s Germany. “It keeps them from harassing you every time you walk down the street,” he said.
Deal said in an interview that he prefers the focus be on the “significant positive changes” that sapped some of the more contentious parts of the bill. Among the more controversial parts that didn’t survive was a provision that would have legalized the carrying of guns on college and university campuses across Georgia.
“The main story that should come out of it is the final product is significantly different from earlier versions,” Deal said. “And some of the more interesting parts were removed.”
A veto would have been unlikely in any year, but the looming election made Deal's signature all but guaranteed. Deal is also betting that, due to Carter's support, it won't be a political liability. Carter told MSNBC this week that he believed his support helped "make the bill better than it was when it first started."
But both men could still face uncomfortable questions on the campaign trail. Sponsors of the new law rebuffed attempts to include domestic violence offenders to the list of people not eligible for a gun carry license.
“Georgia lawmakers had an opportunity earlier this year to stand up for victims of domestic violence,” said Shawn Shubert of Franklin County, a domestic violence survivor. “They failed miserably.”
Powerful religious leaders including Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple synagogue in Atlanta and bishops of the state’s Episcopal Church also opposed efforts to allow guns into the state’s churches.
Aside from letting religious leaders “opt in” to allow guns, the legislation also reduces the penalty for licensed concealed-weapons holders caught in off-limits sanctuaries to a $100 fine.
“We regret and we lament this day,” said Pastor Gary Charles of Central Presbyterian Church, which sits prominently across the street from the state Capitol.
Two dozen opponents gathered there Wednesday, purposely dressed in black to contrast with the sun-soaked barbecue in North Georgia where Deal joined House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, at the bill-signing celebration.
Supporters have been no less effusive. Georgia Carry marshaled hundreds of emails from voters urging Deal to enact legislation that they said would allow them to “protect my family and myself wherever the need might arise.”
Still, even the staunchest conservatives are concerned about what could happen next. Take Baldwin County Sheriff William Massee, who describes himself as a gun-toting “Southern boy” who believes there should be no restrictions on gun ownership. But even he said in a dispatch to Deal that the changes go too far.
He sees two results from the legislation: an increase in lawsuits against authorities and a spike in injuries and deaths because an officer will be “restricted or trained against his instincts” from taking action in a potentially dangerous situation.
“Look beyond the Legislature and consider the safety of the thousands of deputy sheriffs and police officers in your state that work 24 hours a day watching over their towns and counties,” he urged the governor.