Bill to allow permit-less carry of handguns clears Georgia House

For the second time in less than two weeks, Republican lawmakers have passed legislation that would let Georgians carry a concealed handgun without first getting a license from the state.

State representatives approved House Bill 1358 on a 94-57 vote along party lines on Friday, with Republicans voting in favor of the measure. Republican state senators passed a similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 319, less than two weeks ago, also on a party-line vote.

“We need to protect ourselves,” said HB 1358′s sponsor, House Juvenile Justice Chairwoman Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton. “And this bill allows us to do so without having to pay money to the government to do it.”

Supporters of the measure said it would remove an unnecessary barrier to their constitutional right to carry handguns.

Opponents said Republicans are pushing legislation to remove the handgun licensing process to play to the GOP base. But doing that, they said, would also make it easier for those who don’t have a legal right to possess and carry handguns to do so — leading to an increase in gun violence.

HB 1358 would allow any “lawful weapons carrier” or license holder to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed — meaning guns will still be prohibited in places such as the secured areas of airports or government buildings that have security at the entrance, including the state Capitol. A lawful weapons carrier is defined as anyone who is now lawfully allowed to have a gun.

Those who have prior drug convictions, have been convicted of a felony or are facing felony charges, have been treated for mental health issues or substance abuse issues within the past five years, or have been involuntarily committed to a mental health hospital will still be prohibited from purchasing and possessing handguns.

State Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat, said a report from the Council of Probate Judges said that 5,292 concealed carry licenses were denied in 2020 — the most recent year statistics are available. Roberts said most were denied because they had a history of criminal or mental health issues.

“You’re wanting to relax what little check we have and why? What for? Because it’s inconvenient for law-abiding citizens to fill out a form?” Roberts asked. “I just told you the statistics that more than 5,000 people were denied permits likely because of criminal history and mental health. I mean, we don’t know how many people we kept safe by denying those permits.”

Currently, Georgians seeking to carry a concealed handgun have to apply for a license with their local probate court or sheriff’s office (depending on the county), get fingerprinted, submit to a background check and pay a fee up to $75. Background checks still would be required when purchasing a handgun from a store or a dealer under HB 1358.

For years, gun rights advocates have pushed to rid the state of its gun licensing process, but the proposal picked up steam this year when Gov. Brian Kemp — who faces a stiff GOP primary fight for reelection — said he supported passing permit-less carry legislation.

House Public Safety and Homeland Security Chairman J. Collins, R-Villa Rica, said people need fewer barriers to carrying concealed handguns so they can keep themselves safe.

“The sky is not falling here, ladies and gentleman,” he said. “No state that has adopted constitutional carry has had to repeal constitutional carry because they’ve seen blood in the streets.”

State Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, urged his Republican colleagues to keep in mind that polls show a majority of Georgians don’t think the state should repeal its licensing process.

An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll found in January that about 70% of Georgia voters surveyed — and 54% of Republicans — believe gun owners should be required to get a license before carrying a concealed handgun.

McLaurin noted that the five Democrats who spoke against the bill Friday had all flipped districts that were previously held by Republican lawmakers.

“We hold formerly Republican districts where people ... believe that they need representatives who are not going to buy into this drift right BS to appeal to a base,” he said. “The majority party has made the calculation that the short-term boost they get from the base outweighs long-term damage to the brand and public policy consequences. That is what you own tonight.”