Lewis, Democrats push to keep gun debate in the spotlight

For a reminder of the potency of gun control as an election-year issue, look no further than the crowded town hall meeting Wednesday at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

At center stage was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who orchestrated last week’s headline-grabbing sit-in at the U.S. House, and other Democrats pushing for a vote on new gun restrictions as nothing short of a new phase in the civil rights struggle.

Lewis and his allies insisted that their fight in Washington will reverberate in Atlanta, where they hope to defeat a new version of a high-profile gun rights expansion that was vetoed this year.

“You’re on the right side,” Lewis told a crowd of hundreds of supporters at a cramped room outside the church, the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr.

“We’re not going to take it anymore. We’re going to speak up, speak out, and pull and push,” Lewis said. “All across America today there are hundreds of members of Congress doing what we’re doing here. It’s a movement and we’re not going to quit.”

Gun rights activists are readying for a fight. Republican lawmakers, who hold overwhelming advantages in the Georgia Legislature, are looking to bounce back after Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a campus gun measure that would allow people to carry concealed weapons onto pubic college campuses.

Jerry Henry of GeorgiaCarry.org, one of the more aggressive gun rights groups in the state, said the civil rights icon was at the center of a “hypocritical” crusade to deprive citizens of their constitutional right to bear arms. Next year, he said, expect a push to expand the places where permit-holders can carry their guns.

“The overwhelming majority of these incidents occur in gun-free zones,” he said. “Do away with gun-free zones and allow citizens the right to protect themselves if they desire to do so.”

Success and failure in sit-in

The extraordinary 26-hour takeover of the House floor organized by Lewis and other House Democrats on June 22 aimed to force a vote on two bills that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases and banned people on the government’s terror watch list from buying firearms.

It failed in that mission — House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed the sit-in as a “publicity stunt” and Republicans held their ground — but it succeeded in another. Even the most hardened Washington observers were stunned by the protest, whether they saw it as a valiant stand for civil rights or a fundraising gimmick by desperate partisans.

There’s also a sentiment in Washington that the ground has shifted, however slightly, after a mass shooting June 12 in Orlando left 49 dead and dozens more injured.

Eight Senate Republicans joined Democrats to back a GOP-sponsored measure to block people from buying weapons if they’re on one of two federal terror watch lists and don’t successfully appeal that decision. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pushed House Democrats to “keep the drumbeat for action going” with gun control events across the nation.

Those same groups, though, are squarely on the defensive in Georgia. Gun rights advocates such as the National Rifle Association hold enormous sway in state politics and have spent more than $2 million in Georgia on both Democrats and Republicans since President Barack Obama took office.

The governor signed a broad expansion of gun rights in 2014, dubbed by critics the "guns everywhere" bill, that allowed residents to carry their firearms into some bars, churches and government buildings.

Campus fight to resume in Georgia

This year, gun rights activists won another victory when lawmakers approved the campus gun measure that would allow anyone 21 or older with a weapons license to carry a concealed gun anywhere on most parts of public college campuses. It was only vetoed by Deal after lawmakers defied his personal request to carve out some exceptions.

“We will always be open for discussion, but we won’t be taking away or restricting the Second Amendment rights of Georgians,” said state Rep. Rick Jasperse, the Jasper Republican who sponsored the campus gun measure. “I’ll work hard to defend those rights — just as hard as those who desperately want to restrict them.”

As GeorgiaCarry.org and other gun rights advocates prepare for a new offensive, the other side is quietly drawing battle lines. Tammy Parrish is one of several mothers whose children were slain by gun violence who plan to make firsthand appeals at the Capitol this year.

“What they need is to have mothers and fathers like me to hear our story,” said Parrish, who choked up as she talked about her 29-year-old son’s unsolved shooting death in Fulton County. “There are weapons in the streets, weapons in the parks, weapons are everywhere. And they need to know.”

Lewis and his allies have other willing deputies, too.

“The only reason I came to this meeting is to get my marching orders,” said Khalid Kamau, a Black Lives Matter organizer. “Are we going to the state Capitol? Are we going to Washington? I need to know.”

Lewis is keeping mum — for now.

“We’re not going to stand right here and announce the ABCs and the one, two, threes. In the movement we have something called surprises,” he said. “But the word will go out. So speak up and speak out, and find a way to get into necessary trouble. This is just the beginning.”