State analysis of gun bill: felons could claim ‘stand your ground’ defense

Felons could use the state’s “stand your ground” legislation to claim self-defense if they feel threatened and kill somebody in Georgia, according to a state analysis obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirming the effects of a gun bill passed last month by the state Legislature. 

The finding by the nonpartisan state Senate Research Office is likely to add fuel to a national debate over the Georgia bill, House Bill 60, which Gov. Nathan Deal has yet to sign into law. Dubbed the “guns everywhere” legislation by opponents, HB 60 passed on the final day of this year’s state legislative session and would expand where Georgians may legally carry firearms, including schools, bars, churches and government buildings.

The analysis — dated the day the session ended March 20, when the large volume of bills considered may have left most lawmakers little time to review it — also noted the effect of other provisions that have not received much attention:

  • The bill would repeal state law requiring firearms dealers to obtain state licenses and maintain records of firearm sales and purchases.
  • It would revoke the governor’s authority to suspend or limit the carrying or sale of guns even in case of emergencies — something current law allows.
  • Cities were already barred from regulating gun shows and dealers through zoning or by ordinance. The bill, however, also would extend that “pre-emption” to all weapons — so a knife show, for example, would be free from local zoning or regulation.

Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, passed in 2006, states a person has no duty to retreat and can use deadly force if he has reason to believe his life or property is endangered. The law most recently came under scrutiny here in November when a Georgia homeowner shot and killed a 72-year-old Alzheimer’s patient he thought was an intruder. It shot into national headlines before George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Florida in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. 

Even some of the bill’s supporters have not always known — or made clear — what effect it would have on the “stand your ground” law, such as how it might extend protections to felons. Still, “there is nothing new in this bill that is not already done in some other state,” said Jerry Henry, the executive director of Georgia Carry, whose more than 7,300 members have lobbied heavily on behalf of the bill and legislation like it for several years. “It’s not extreme.”

The bill, Henry said, would prevent local authorities from creating a patchwork of conflicting rules and affirm private property rights and law-abiding citizens’ rights to defend themselves. From a national perspective, Georgia would be among a handful of states specifically allowing guns in churches, although more than a dozen others don’t specifically ban concealed weapons in places of worship, either. The state is also following the example of more than a dozen states that allow guns in bars and/or schools.

Henry and other supporters said the bill’s provision involving the “stand your ground” defense would not exempt prosecutors from investigating or charging felons for crimes in any particular scenario. And it does not mean a felon could, for example, legally carry a gun.

“Even if you’re a convicted felon, you still have a right to defend yourself,” said one of the bill’s chief sponsors, state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “As a convicted felon, you certainly don’t have a right to use offensive actions, but you can use defensive actions to protect yourself or your family.”

The bill, however, has caught the attention of media from California to New York — and overseas from England, Canada and Germany. High-profile opponents, including former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, have waged national campaigns against the bill. Supporters have been just as vocal, including the National Rifle Association, which dubbed HB 60 “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history.”

State advocates on both sides have also battled. Piyali Cole, with the Georgia Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, called on Deal to veto “a dangerous bill that protects criminals.”

Thousands of phone calls, emails and letters — both for and against — have been recorded in the Gold Dome. The governor’s office by practice does not typically comment on pending legislation, although Deal’s staff helped hash out a compromise between competing versions of the bill in the session’s last days.

Deal must decide whether to act on the bill by April 29, well before the May 20 primary election in which he faces two GOP challengers. It could become law — and go into effect July 1 — without the governor’s signature, but he has the option to veto it.

The four-page analysis done by the Senate Research Office is the most comprehensive legislative review done of the bill’s final version. In objective fashion, it breaks down the effect of each provision in the bill — much as the office itself has done since 1975, when it first began to operate for senators and the lieutenant governor.

Its findings confirm analysis done by the bill’s opponents, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group established by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And they are likely to give additional motivation to efforts like that of the Georgia Municipal Association, which is among dozens of entities that have asked Deal to veto HB 60.

“This legislation will strain municipal budgets through increased costs of security, training and frivolous litigation,” D. Lamar Norton, the executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, said in a letter filed with Deal’s office. The organization represents more than 99 percent of the state’s municipal governments.

Among the association’s objections, the bill would restrict local officials from limiting weapons in city-owned buildings and prohibit police from detaining anyone to verify whether he is legally allowed to carry a weapon.

The bill would allow local school boards to arm employees under certain conditions. It would explicitly allow guns in unsecured areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, something that is common practice now. It would allow guns in bars; current law prohibits them unless a bar owner expressly allows entry. And, for the first time, it would allow guns in church sanctuaries if permitted by an individual place of worship.

The provision in HB 60 about “stand your ground” in particular has drawn the ire of opponents and confused even lawmakers who passed the bill. During debate in the state Senate that saw the bill through on a 37-18 vote, Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, said “no” when asked by opponents whether HB 60 extended “stand your ground” protection to felons.

Given what is now in the Senate Research Office report, Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said her vote against the bill may have had more support. “Had this felon immunity been revealed,” she said, “it could have changed the course of the debate.”

But Henry isn’t so sure, and he has faith Deal will come through for the state’s gun rights community.

“I think he’s getting pressure from both sides, but most of the ones calling him to sign (the bill) are in Georgia,” he said. “I would hope he’d listen more to his constituents than somebody from New York or California or somewhere. I believe he will.”

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