The gun rights debate in Georgia intensifies with 2020 nearing

Gun rights and gun control figured prominently in Georgia’s elections in 2018, and responses this past week to mass shootings in Ohio and Texas could make them a top issue in 2020 campaigns. (Erik S. Lesser/The New York Times)

Gun rights and gun control figured prominently in Georgia’s elections in 2018, and responses this past week to mass shootings in Ohio and Texas could make them a top issue in 2020 campaigns. (Erik S. Lesser/The New York Times)

Georgia voters in 2018 elected a Democratic congresswoman who gained fame as a gun control advocate after her teenage son was shot to death, and a Republican governor who aired attention-grabbing ads handling a double-barreled shotgun while talking with a nervous young man trying to date his daughter.

The twin massacres last week in Ohio and Texas punctuated how a gun rights debate that already helped shape last year’s election could become an even larger issue in Georgia in 2020, further cementing a divide between politicians over firearms. Polling and interviews show voters appear to have a more nuanced view than their representatives.

>> Related: What Georgians think about guns

It also highlighted the persistent gridlock over sweeping proposals in Washington that seek to combat gun violence and smash the all-too-predictable cycle of outrage and then inaction that seems to follow each mass shooting. With Congress away on a five-week recess, that rift seemed as intractable as ever.

That point was driven home as grieving families mourned the victims and President Donald Trump used a national address to support “red flag” laws that would allow authorities to take guns away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others. In Georgia, Republican officials greeted his words with trepidation.

Gov. Brian Kemp said he is “closely monitoring” the discussions over the proposal but did not offer to support a state version of the legislation. Other GOP leaders were even more circumspect.

“Let me take a look at it when we get to see some legislation,” U.S. Sen. David Perdue said Wednesday. “To say I’m for red flag — that would be an overstatement because of concerns I have about due process.”

There’s a reason for the edginess. State Republicans face pressure to prevent future mass shootings but are also pushed by gun rights activists, who hold immense influence in primary contests, to oppose any new restrictions. Within hours of Trump’s remarks, some conservatives in Georgia threatened to pull support for Perdue if he backed the proposal.

For Democrats, one of the most violent weekends in recent U.S. history provoked an escalating response. Some revived calls for gun control measures. But others pushed for new, more aggressive tactics, such as pressing Walmart to stop selling firearms or forcing a “shutdown” of the Senate until it passes gun control legislation.

"People are genuinely upset about the tragedies of this weekend," said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. "When you start hearing chants of 'do something' at rallies, that reflects the mood of voters in Georgia and across the nation. People want action from their elected officials."

A great gun divide

For all the gridlock in Washington, Georgia’s Republican-controlled Legislature has moved steadily to expand gun rights.

A 2014 law allowed Georgians to legally carry firearms in a wide range of new places, including schools, bars, churches and government buildings. Three years later, another new law allowed people with firearms permits to carry concealed weapons onto public college and university campuses.

During this time, Democrats have gone through a fundamental shift on the issue. State Democratic leaders once proudly courted the National Rifle Association for its endorsement, but leading Democratic candidates last year jockeyed over who hated the pro-gun group more.

That could just be the start. Kemp, whose shotgun-toting ad helped propel him into last year's GOP runoff, supports permitless carry of weapons and a sales-tax holiday for guns and ammunition timed for the celebration of July Fourth. Meanwhile, even modest proposals to restrict firearms access and strengthen background checks have been nonstarters.

A Georgia version of "red flag" legislation didn't reach a vote this year, and neither did a Democratic-backed proposal that aims to keep guns out of the hands of those convicted of family violence.

Even lower-hanging fruit has been out of reach. Federal law bans people who have been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment from buying guns, but Georgia lawmakers more than a decade ago passed a law that required the state to purge those records after five years. Efforts to repeal that law have gone nowhere.

Efforts to repeal that law have gone nowhere, though former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican, said Friday that the five-year purge is “dangerous to society” and urged state leaders to roll back the rules.

“It should be based on documentation — that is fairer to the patient and the community,” he said in an interview.

Although there’s been no sign of a shift from state Republican legislators, Oliver said she expects Democrats to make a renewed push for red flag restrictions and a repeal of the records purge next year in hopes of pressuring vulnerable GOP lawmakers in Atlanta’s suburbs to back them.

“They’re reasonable, they’re commonsense and they’re very modest proposals that should be easy to vote for,” she said. “I expected those bills to pass in this year’s legislative session, and I would be even more surprised if they don’t pass in 2020.”

‘Political expediency’

Consensus has also been difficult to find on Capitol Hill.

A measure to expand background checks that was carefully crafted to attract bipartisan support after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings fell five votes short of a filibuster-proof majority — and that was when Democrats controlled the Senate.

This year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has so far refused to take up a pair of Democratic-backed bills approved by the House that would require federal background checks for all firearm sales and transfers, and an expanded FBI review for gun purchases flagged by the current background check system.

Republican leaders have said such legislation would infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans while doing little to address mental illness and criminals who obtain their weapons through illegal channels.

“I’m hopeful that in the wake of a very emotional time we don’t have an emotional reaction,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “If we’re going to do something, let’s look at things that actually would work and … make sure our civil liberties are protected as well.”

As the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Collins will be central to any compromise on firearms. He introduced a narrower measure earlier this year that seeks to make it easier for law enforcement to share information about violent threats, which he said would spur the kind of coordination that could have prevented other mass shootings.

There are signs a compromise could be in the works.

One path could involve setting aside funding in September's spending package to let the federal government study the causes of gun violence for the first time in more than two decades. The GOP recently agreed to lift a ban on such research, but both chambers of Congress still need to approve the funding.

After speaking with Trump on Thursday, McConnell said finding a bipartisan way to bolster background checks will be one of “two items that for sure will be front and center” in the chamber this fall.

The other is the red flag issue that has earned support from some prominent Republicans and backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who floated the possibility that Democrats could soon try to advance a bill.

A major force behind the bill is U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, the Marietta Democrat who has made gun control her central political issue. McBath became a national gun control advocate after her son was fatally shot in 2012, and Everytown for Gun Safety spent millions to support its former employee's upset victory last year.

“It is a tragedy for this body to continue to not pass legislation that would save lives,” McBath said of her red flag proposal. “For us to continue to turn a blind eye to the number of people that continue to die every single day to unnecessary gun violence is unconscionable.”

Collins said House Republicans could be open to such legislation as long as there are safeguards in place for innocent people who are improperly accused.

“This is a path that needs to be tread lightly because there is a danger of abuse,” he said.

‘War zone’

Recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution polling suggests Georgia voters value the right to carry guns for self-defense, but they are open to at least some gun control measures.

January 2019 survey found that 78% of voters support raising the minimum age in Georgia for purchasing an assault weapon from 18 to 21. A slightly larger share of voters — 82% — said they oppose allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Among Georgia Republican primary voters surveyed in April 2018, 45% said they wanted to see stricter laws covering the sale of firearms, while 46% wanted them kept the same. Support for stricter laws drew support from 90% of Democratic primary voters polled separately.

Kim Bailey, a nurse from Milledgeville, is straddling that divide. She is OK with expanded background checks, but she feels tighter restrictions on the types of weapons people can own won’t solve the problem.

“It’s way deeper than what any lawmaker can do, and more laws aren’t going to stop the violence. We need to be more vigilant and preventive on our end,” she said. “And we need better parenting.”

Bailey, who describes herself as conservative, said her view is influenced by a hard lesson she learned on a recent road trip to Atlanta. Vandals smashed into her car and stole a handgun tucked into her purse.

“If people want guns, they’re going to get them somehow and some way,” she said. “It’s a deeper issue that lawmakers aren’t going to be able to solve on their own.”

Shirley Rose had the opposite reaction. The Acworth retiree described herself as a political independent, but she’s increasingly drawn to Democratic candidates in part because of their support for bans on assault-style weapons.

“They should take these AK-47s off the markets immediately,” she said. “Why aren’t they? Are these people crazy? We don’t need to make it a war zone over here just to protect people’s freedom to buy guns.”

For Keith McGowan, a Statesboro attorney, the gun control debate is close to home. He owns several firearms and grew up in a hunting culture. But he understands the pressure lawmakers face to act to curb gun violence.

“I don’t know the answer. If I did, I’d be the king of the world and I’d fix the problem,” McGowan said. “It’s heartbreaking what’s going on. I’m definitely in the do-something camp, but I’m not sure what that something is.”