House bill broadens access to guns in Georgia

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

A long-awaited gun bill filed Tuesday in the Georgia House proposed what many had expected. But Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, the main sponsor of House Bill 875, did throw in a few surprises.

The bill, as expected, would lift restrictions on guns in churches and bars, allow school boards to arm employees and permit honorably discharged military veterans under 21 years of age to carry a concealed weapon. Unexpectedly, it says getting caught carrying a gun on a college campus would get students’ wrists slapped, not cuffed, since it would no longer be a crime, just a civil penalty. Government buildings without “active” security screening would be fair game for people licensed to carry concealed weapons.

“Let’s be real clear, 75 percent of (the bill) relates to Georgians who are over 21, who have had a background check, who have done all those good things and have been approved for a license,” Jasperse said. “That is what this is about. You have to absolutely realize that the people who want to do us harm — to do my wife harm and your wives or children or daughters or whatever — could care less what is in this bill.”

But there are many people on both sides who very much care what happens next.

Jasperse and a core group of House leaders have tried for the past year and a half to pass a sweeping gun bill burnishing Georgia’s credentials as one of the nation’s friendliest states to gun owners.

Just last week, the effort seemed to stagger when the Legislature’s own lawyers gave an opinion that it would be unconstitutional to give public college and university presidents a say whether guns would be allowed on campus. House leaders had planned such compromise as a carrot for Senate Republicans uncomfortable with so-called “campus carry.”

It was a small victory for the bill’s opponents, including leaders of the state’s university and technical college systems. Now, they still face a fight.

“Those concerns were from people in churches, some people in government, some people in the colleges,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker. “We need to study the issue very closely. We’ve got to look at every aspect to make sure we’re protecting the public. Right now, I think this new bill raises some concerns.”

A section of the bill likely to generate the most controversy deals with guns on college campuses. Current law makes it a misdemeanor criminal offense for a permit holder to carry a weapon onto campus. Jasperse’s bill, however, strikes that language and says someone caught with a gun on campus cannot be arrested and can only be fined up to $100.

House officials including one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said that would be a civil penalty and not an actual crime. John Monroe, an attorney for Georgia Carry, which supports the bill, said it “is a good question” if that’s true. “I’m not sure you could say you don’t have a criminal record” if caught, he said.

In some states, civil penalties amount to a ticket. Traffic violations in many states are not technically criminal offenses. In Georgia, however, a motorist can theoretically spend a year in jail for running a stop sign, Monroe said.

Despite the confusion over campus carry, Monroe said the bill “really moves the ball forward for people to carry their guns in Georgia.”

The bill would also require churches to allow weapons into sanctuaries unless the church specifically decided to ban them. That worried the Rev. Gary Charles, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, across the street from the Capitol.

“There’s a significant group of religious leaders I’ve been part of in this city who are adamantly opposed to firearms in houses of worship,” said Charles, a member of an interfaith coalition of clergy who have opposed gun bills in recent years. “And I can’t quite figure out who thinks this is a good idea. Because we certainly don’t.”

Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said Jasperse’s bill also takes away cities’ power to set their own guidelines for where weapons are allowed.

The bill would allow weapons license holders to carry firearms into any government building that does not have trained officers screening visitors. For many small towns, Henderson said, that would create a financial burden.

“It would be too costly for many of Georgia’s city governments to ensure a … certified police officer is on hand during business hours, council meetings, etc.,” Henderson said.