Lawmakers debate allowing some to have guns in Georgia churches

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, on the floor of the Georgia Senate. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, on the floor of the Georgia Senate. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A Georgia senator wants to allow some gun owners to carry weapons in the state’s places of worship, and schools operated by those religious organizations.

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, said the legislation is designed to allow churches and other places of worship, and the schools they run, to protect themselves.

Heath said a number of high profile shootings at places of worship across the country, including a December incident in Texas in which armed security shot and killed the gunman, prompted him to file the legislation this year.

“It would be a huge disservice to the members and attendees of Georgia’s places of worship to continue to leave them as sitting ducks for evil people who seek to murder and maim them in the one place where they should be most safe,” he said.

A Senate panel on Monday discussed Senate Bill 357, which aims to allow places of worship to allow selected licensed gun owners to carry their weapons on the property.

Lawmakers did not vote on the legislation.

Current state law allows parishioners to carry weapons only if the place of worship’s governing body lets them. Few have decided to “opt in,” gun rights advocates said.

Courtney Spriggs, a retired law enforcement officer and volunteer with gun control group Moms Demand Action, said allowing parishioners to be armed in places of worship makes it dangerous for first responders.

“A law enforcement officer can’t be expected to quickly ascertain whether a person with a gun is a congregant, pastor, a teacher or student, or suspect,” the Forsyth County resident said.

A separate bill that aims to allow anyone to carry their firearm in Georgia if he or she has a permit in their home state cleared a House panel.

Georgia currently operates under what is known as “reciprocity” — where only people from states that allow those with Georgia gun permits to carry the weapons there can bring their guns here. Georgia has the “reciprocity” agreements with 32 states ranging from South Carolina to Wyoming.

State Rep. Mandi Ballinger, a Canton Republican who sponsored the legislation, said she is not aware of any instance in which someone from another state was prosecuted for carrying a weapon in Georgia illegally unless he or she already was charged with other crimes.