Lawmakers pass sweeping gun bill

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

The fate of a sweeping expansion to Georgia’s gun laws, the subject of much debate and consternation over the course of the past two legislative sessions, was decided in the final hour of the 2014 session late Thursday.

House Bill 60 received final passage by a vote of 112-58 and now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal's desk. The approval came despite national efforts by opponents to defeat what they dubbed the "guns everywhere" bill.

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, the main sponsor of the House's effort on gun legislation, said it's been a "long and winding road."

"The House has finally come along for Georgia's gun owners," said Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen.

As lawmakers negotiated behind the scenes, there appeared to be two sticking points: whether to force churches to allow weapons holders to carry guns into houses of worship and whether Georgia will legalize silencers, known technically as suppressors.

The Senate wanted to legalize silencers but ban guns from churches unless specifically authorized; the House wanted to continue to ban silencers but require churches to “opt out” of allowing weapons.

The final version would legalize the use of silencers for hunting and says guns remain banned in houses of worship unless church leaders allow them.

Earlier Thursday, House Republicans made a late, and quickly unsuccessful, charge to also legalize the carrying of guns on college campuses — a controversial measure that assured the defeat of a similar gun bill last year.

The House Rules Committee took a Senate bill legalizing silencers and amended it to be a larger weapons measure. It would have allowed permit holders to carry guns onto college campuses, but not into dorms or athletic events. House leaders tried to pass this in 2013, but the Senate refused. That didn’t change Thursday.

"The time for playing games should be over," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle responded. "The Senate is committed to having a good gun bill."

Deal said late Thursday he had no patience for the ploy, either.

Deal said in an interview he had “indicated all along that I prefer that campus carry not be in any legislation.” His staff had worked quietly to hash out a compromise between the House and Senate.

“I don’t know what the final legislation will look like,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think there was a fairly general consensus that (campus carry) wouldn’t be in any piece of legislation this year.”

Senate leaders told the House this week they were willing to soften their stance on churches by easing the penalty for those caught in churches with weapons. According to their proposal, someone caught with a gun in a church that didn’t allow it would face the equivalent of a jaywalking ticket: a misdemeanor and a $100 fine.

Other Senate proposals this week sought to tighten permission to carry a gun in unsecured areas of Georgia airports, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. They did not address language in the House version that would appear to allow convicted felons to avoid prosecution for the use of deadly force by invoking Georgia’s “stand your ground” self-defense laws.

The House had also softened its stance on forcing local authorities to allow weapons into “nonsecure” government buildings, although the Senate was pushing for more local control on the issue.

The back-and-forth could have national implications, with the legislation’s push already making national news and catching the attention of high-profile gun control groups including Americans for Responsible Solutions. The group, founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband, steered more than 3,500 phone calls and emails to state leaders trying to stop the bill. They also delivered a petition of more than 50,000 people opposing the legislation.

Opponents, including the parents of gun victims, have called it wrongheaded and morally questionable. More than 200 religious leaders across the state, including Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple synagogue in Atlanta and bishops of the state’s Episcopal Church have publicly decried it. So have law enforcement officers, teachers, county administrators, mayors including Atlanta’s Kasim Reed and the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Howard Sills, sheriff of Putnam County, said late Thursday much of the bill does not concern law enforcement.

“Then there is one sentence and it destroys everything,” Sills said.

That one sentence says police may not detain anyone to demand to see a weapons permit. That means, Sills said, that if someone is walking down the street late at night with a pistol stuck in his waistband, police may not stop him and ask to see his weapons permit.

“I don’t think the intent of the bill is to put law enforcement in danger,” Sills said. “It is one with devastating potential.”