OPINION: How to loosen gun laws after a mass shooting

Man with 6 guns, body armor arrested inside Publix at Atlantic Station, police say
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Man with 6 guns, body armor arrested inside Publix at Atlantic Station, police say

The Georgia Legislature isn’t done yet. After passing sweeping changes to election laws and other, less controversial to-do’s, a gun measure is likely to see action in the final days of the session this week.

It won’t be the gun safety bill Democrats introduced after a 21-year-old Cherokee County man killed eight Georgians, including six women of Asian ancestry, at spas in metro Atlanta.

Instead, House Bill 218 would loosen gun restrictions, not tighten them.

Making it easier to buy and carry firearms two weeks after a mass shooting seems downright brazen, even in a gun-friendly state like Georgia.

So the timing of House Bill 218, a measure now moving through the Georgia Legislature to loosen gun restrictions, not tighten them, would seem strange at best.

But with two days left until the end of the legislative session, and GOP primary opponents already announcing who they’ll challenge in the 2022 elections, the timing of HB 218 makes perfect sense, at least for Republicans in the Capitol.

The first thing to understand about why a gun rights bill would power through the Legislature, even after the spa shootings, are the pure politics involved, especially for Gov. Brian Kemp.

Kemp won the GOP primary in 2018 after casting himself as so pro-gun that he would star in an ad pointing a gun at an actor playing a potential suitor for one of his daughters.

The governor also supported “constitutional carry,” which would let gun owners conceal and carry handguns without a permit, and picked the National Rifle Association over Delta Air Lines in a squabble between the two.

Heading into the 2022 election cycle, it’s no secret that Kemp is on the outs with a large swath of the Donald Trump-loving GOP base, despite the fact that he has cut taxes, kept the economy humming, and recently made the COVID vaccine available to all Georgians.

A win on a gun bill isn’t just important for Kemp, but for every Republican in the Legislature up for reelection in 2022. The same holds true for the sweeping changes to election law that Republicans pushed through the Capitol on Thursday night.

Enter HB 218, a “reciprocity” gun bill called “the governor’s bill” in Capitol hallways, long supported by both the National Rifle Association and Georgia Carry to allow any legal gun owner from another state to also carry their weapons in Georgia, even if their home state has looser carry license standards or no standards at all.

When Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, introduced HB 218 on the House floor in February, she called it “a very simple little housekeeping gun bill.”

Democrats, including Rep. Becky Evans, D-Atlanta, voted against the bill. “Law enforcement overwhelmingly opposes concealed carry reciprocity,” she said during the debate.

Along with the reciprocity language, HB 218 has picked up other riders. along the way.

One would have allowed Georgians to apply for a license in any county in the state, not just the county where they live, which is the current requirement.

Another would require probate courts to remain open to issue weapons carry permits, even during an emergency for seven hours a day for first-come, first-serve service, whether the emergency is a pandemic, a tornado or a terrorist attack. Probate courts are now operating on a by-appointment basis.

“If there’s a bombing and there’s no courthouse, I don’t know how we issue permits,” said Judge Kelli Wolk. “If there’s a ‘snowmageddon’ and nobody can get to the courthouse, am I going to get sued, because there was nobody here to issue those?”

Wolk is the judge of Cobb County Probate Court and the president of the Council of Probate Court Judges. She has shared concerns about elements of the bill with lawmakers, including the language that would have allowed Georgians to apply for a license in any county in the state.

That last piece of the bill was pulled out during a committee hearing Friday.

Beyond the practical and logistical wrenches remaining in the bill, it’s hard for your average bear to understand why gun restrictions in Georgia need to be loosened even further.

Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in the spa shootings, had no problem buying his weapon the day before he went on his shooting spree.

And it was easy enough for Rico Marley to get the six guns he took into an Atlanta Publix this week before being arrested at the grocery store.

There may still be changes to HB 218 before it gets to the Senate floor, when all Democrats are expected to vote against it.

“It is a very bad look for Republicans to be providing the opportunity for more guns everywhere fresh off of two mass shootings.” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

HB 218 is expected to be on the Senate floor for a vote this week, but it’s possible it won’t win final approval before the Legislature completes its work for the year at midnight on Wednesday.

That would be just as well for most Georgians, who in the past have broadly supported gun ownership, along with safety measures to keep weapons away from dangerous individuals.

But GOP primary voters are not the same as most Georgians. And every Republican in the General Assembly will face those voters in their primary a little more than a year from now.

So will Brian Kemp. His spokeswoman Mallory Blount said he has been working with legislators and advocacy groups to pass a measure this year.

“While specific provisions of HB 218 may change before final passage,” Blount said, “The governor remains committed to working with the House and Senate to pass significant pro-2nd Amendment legislation this session.”