House says yes to expanded gun rights

A plan to allow Georgians to carry weapons in bars, churches, parts of college campuses and into unsecured government buildings won overwhelming approval in the state House on Thursday, but the legislation already faces serious doubts in the state Senate.

House Bill 512, sponsored by Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, passed the House 117-56, largely along party lines. During more than an hour of emotional debate, supporters talked about threats from armed criminals; opponents bemoaned the growth of the dangers of firearms in emotional settings such as schools and bars.

The House vote comes as many states and Congress wrestle with gun laws — whether to tighten restrictions in the wake of mass shootings such as December’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn. More than two dozen gun bills have been filed this year in the Georgia Legislature, many of them seeking to expand the ability of licensed Georgians to carry weapons.

Thursday’s passage in the House was crucial because it was Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to pass in at least one chamber of the General Assembly to have a reasonable chance of becoming law.

While the House overwhelmingly backed HB 512, that does not guarantee a smooth way forward. Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, indicated his chamber may not do anything else on guns for the year.

“We passed a bill (Senate Bill 101) that is supported by the National Rifle Association,” Shafer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We passed a very strong, pro-Second Amendment piece of legislation. If the House has additional ideas, we will certainly consider them.”

SB 101, among other provisions, would keep the names and personal details of those licensed to carry a weapon secret and would prohibit local officials from banning guns in public housing.

HB 512 was backed not by the NRA, but by the 7,300-member Georgia Carry advocacy group. Jerry Henry, the executive director of Georgia Carry, said the organization was thankful for the House vote.

“We’ve done a lot of work on this bill,” Henry said. “It didn’t start last week.”

The group’s goal is to push HB 512 through the Senate this year, although members are willing to wait a year if that assures passage. The state Legislature works on a two-year cycle, and it would be possible for the bill to stay alive without a Senate floor vote this year.

“We’ve got 10 more legislative days to get things done,” Henry said, noting that Thursday was the 30th day of the 40-day session.

But not every gun rights organization supports the bill, at least not now. Georgia Gun Owners objected to an amendment added in the House that, among other things, could strip a person’s right to carry a gun if a police officer overhears him threatening someone.

The amendment, and now the bill, the group told the AJC, “would allow an individual to be stripped of his or her Second Amendment rights without due process of the law.”

No one, the group said, supports violence, but “notice that the bill language says if you are ‘heard’ and ‘reported’ you can be denied a weapons license in Georgia.”

The group vowed to work to strip the language in the Senate. Georgia Carry also does not like the amendment and thinks it can be changed in the Senate.

Even Senate passage, however, does not guarantee the bill becomes law. Gov. Nathan Deal would have to either sign it or allow it to become law without his signature. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson declined to give the governor’s opinion of the bill.

But Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee and a co-sponsor of HB 512, said he discussed the bill with the governor’s aides.

“Does the governor like this bill?” Meadows said. “He likes part of it.”

Meadows said testimony by a Georgia Tech student afraid to go to class and the words of Jasperse’s own daughter, who must walk to class at Georgia State, drove him.

“She is armed with mace,” Meadows said. “Give me a break.”

Meadows, who has great power to decide which bills get a vote from the full House, also offered a subtle warning to those who might vote against his bill.

“It’s rare for me to come up here,” Meadows said from the floor of the House. “I feel like sometimes that I might put too much pressure on you if I introduce a lot of bills. I never forget nothing. And it’s taken me a long time to forgive some people.”

Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, spoke against the bill. A college professor, Drenner said she recently had a male student scream at her in class when she got his name wrong.

“We all think about the student who is angry at the faculty member over a failing grade or is distraught over a breakup,” Drenner said. “But this is a student who was angry because I mispronounced his name. What if he had a gun?”

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, an Army veteran, said he knows supporters of the bill believe it will lead to fewer deaths as more people are armed to defend themselves.

“I’m not by nature a worrier,” Holcomb said, “but I worry a mix of alcohol, drugs, sex and guns on college campuses could be fatal.”

But House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, summed up the feelings of the ruling majority.

“What I do care about is my right and your right to protect yourself,” O’Neal said. “Until our government can unconditionally guarantee our safety, I will fight for my right and your right to protect our families.

“As long as bad guys have guns I will fight for the right of good guys to have guns.”