Licensed gun owners would be allowed to carry guns into churches, bars and nonsecure government buildings under legislation approved in the state House on Tuesday. House Bill 875, sponsored by Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, passed 119-56, largely along party lines. It now goes to the Senate.
Photo: Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com
Photo: Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

House adopts sweeping gun bill

Georgia’s House of Representatives voted Tuesday to let licensed gun owners carry their weapons in more places, sending the bill to the Senate where changes are likely.

House Bill 875, which passed 119-56, would lift restrictions on guns in churches and bars and allow school boards to arm employees. It would also no longer be a crime, under the bill, for licensed owners to carry guns on college campuses, where they are banned. Instead, those caught would face a civil penalty, a $100 fine.

It also creates a system to make sure those deemed mentally ill don’t qualify for a license.

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The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, now goes to the Senate, where members have balked at allowing more guns into public colleges and universities. Senators are already bracing for debate. They say it is not clear how big their changes to the bill will be.

The Senate’s queasiness about the ability to carry guns on college campuses derailed a similar bill last year. Some members also have concerns about forcing churches to take formal action if they don’t want guns allowed, which lawmakers call an “opt out” clause. A number of senators would rather it be “opt in,” meaning churches wouldn’t have to act unless they specifically wanted to allow guns on their property.

Still, several senators supported Tuesday’s passage as a legislative milestone.”The House has done a good job,” said Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, who carried the gun bill last year. “I met with Georgia Carry. I met with the National Rifle Association. And we all agree there are some things, but let’s fix those issues. Supporting the 2nd Amendment doesn’t mean you lose all your common sense.”

The House’s approval is significant as just weeks ago it appeared supporters’ hopes for any gun bill this year had been dashed when the Legislature’s own lawyers gave an opinion that a compromise on the “campus carry” provision was probably unconstitutional. That proposed compromise would have given public college and university presidents a say on whether guns would be allowed on campus.

But the bill’s authors regrouped and have developed sweeping firearms legislation.

During more than two hours of debate Tuesday, supporters and opponents expressed fundamental differences regarding the culture of guns. For the bill’s backers, guns in the hands of those licensed to carry them are a deterrent to crime and a means of self-defense. To its critics, more guns increases the chance of gun violence.

“It will serve to protect private property rights against government intrusion and improve the umbrella of safety provided to Georgia families,” Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, said. “It will make Georgia a safer place.”

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said nearly the opposite was true: “You feel safer when you’re carrying a gun,” Oliver said to the chamber’s GOP majority. “I feel less safe when you’re carrying a gun.”

Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, called the bill “a skunk wrapped in silk and dipped in Chanel No. 5,” while Rep. Dusty Hightower, R-Carrollton, said it helps facilitate “a natural right of self defense.”

Perhaps the only moment of true drama in the debate came when Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Ambrose, a funeral home operator, became the only member to break ranks with his party.

Sims asked for a show of hands of those who have seen a person killed with a firearm. A few hands went up.

“It’s a bad situation,” Sims said. “I deal with it unfortunately in my job.

“Guns don’t belong in church and a gun doesn’t belong in a bar. It just doesn’t.”

Opponents of the bill touted polling that showed Georgians didn’t want more guns in public places. A poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January found that 78 percent of Georgia registered voters opposed allowing guns on college campuses; 72 percent opposed allowing guns in churches; and 82 percent would require any gun owner who wanted to carry a weapon in public to first take a safety course.

Outside the chamber, advocates on both sides of the issue also spoke out.

“We’re happy with it. We’re ready to move forward,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of the 7,300-member Georgia Carry advocacy group. “I think we will get a good gun bill out of the Senate.”

A coalition of clergy known as Outcry: Faith Voices Against Gun Violence, meanwhile, lamented the House action.

“As citizens of Georgia and as leaders of faith communities we oppose House Bill 875 and any legislation that would allow more guns in more places in our state,” the group said in a statement signed by 60 pastors and rabbis. “Through our faith, we have a vision for human community that is built on solidarity and trust, not fear and terror.”

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