OPINION: Saving kids from backyard pools, but not loaded guns

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill, which allows permitless carry, at a gun store In Douglasville on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The law allows a “lawful weapons carrier” to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill, which allows permitless carry, at a gun store In Douglasville on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The law allows a “lawful weapons carrier” to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

My children had their first active shooter drill at school when they were just 6-years old.

Then in first grade, with school bags bigger than they were, they piled into the back seat of my car one afternoon excited to tell me about their day.

“We learned how to hide in the bathroom, in case the bad guys come,” they said. My heart sank, knowing they had done an active shooter drill without fully understanding why they were doing it. I also realized then that we, as the adults in our children’s lives, had failed them and their generation. Their daily lives now go on with the subtle, looming danger of gun violence constantly in the background.

The latest reminder came earlier this month with the shooting in Midtown Atlanta, which killed Amy St. Pierre, a 39-year-old mother who left behind two small children.

As a massive manhunt followed the Midtown attack, I started to hear from other moms whose children were in real-life lockdowns in their schools. Sports practices in the area were canceled “out of an abundance of caution.” Children, naturally, were terrified.

Another mass shooting followed days later at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, killing eight people, including three small children who were shopping with their families.

A witness who was the first to respond described an “unfathomable” scene, including a little girl he found crouched in a praying position. After trying to find a pulse, he said he realized in horror, “She had no face.” Another little boy was alive, but his mother had died shielding him from bullets. The little boy was soaked in his mother’s blood.

Parents I talk to want to know not why the shootings are happening, but why so little is being done to stop them, especially here in Georgia, where gun violence is happening in all parts of the state.

The easiest, but incomplete answer, is politics, and more specifically, the politics of guns. And if you want to see the power of the gun lobby in the state, the Georgia Capitol is the place to look.

The National Rifle Association is hardly a player there anymore, after years of scandal and far-right activists pushing for more aggressive action. In its place, some GOP lawmakers will privately tell you, are smaller, more militant groups that threaten not just lawmakers’ seats in the General Assembly, but more subtly and perniciously, their personal safety, too.

The results were plain to see in the Legislature earlier this year, where two bills with the same goal of preventing Georgia children’s deaths, had two very different outcomes.

The first was “Izzy’s Law,” a bill that state Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, introduced shortly after a 4-year-old boy in Augusta tragically died during a private swim lesson in a backyard pool. Democrats and Republicans from the Augusta area all got behind the legislation, which will require new safety measures for all private swim lessons.

“The best thing I can tell you is, this will protect Georgia’s children,” Burns said on the Senate floor. The bill passed both chambers in less than 30 days and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law with Izzy’s mother looking on.

Compare that to the Pediatric Health Safe Storage Act from state Rep. Michelle Au, a bill that would make it a crime to have a loaded weapon accessible to minors without parental supervision. The Johns Creek Democrat told me she designed her bill as a public health measure since she said gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death for Georgia children.

The Au bill got something rare for a gun-safety measure — a subcommittee hearing, this one scheduled by the Republican Committee Chairman J. Powell. But the hearing came after Crossover Day, meaning the bill would not be considered this year, and it ended with this warning from Alex Dorr, a representative for Georgia Gun Owners:

“Georgia Gun Owners will be sure to expose anyone who supports this bill, and that goes doubly true for any Republicans who betray us,” Dorr said. “But I’m very hopeful that that’s not the case here today.”

The only person with enough power to move any kind of gun safety measure in the state is Gov. Kemp, now in his second term with a huge November win behind him. But while Kemp has hardly been the gun-toting character from his 2018 campaign commercial, he has delivered for gun lobbyists and their members in nearly every way possible.

The biggest win was the bill to eliminate the requirement for licenses to carry concealed weapons. Kemp signed it in 2022 with a flourish in front of a Douglasville gun store, with the first lady and two of his three daughters beside him.

Another win came earlier this year, when he signed a school safety bill. The new law does not restrict any of the guns used in mass shootings. Instead, it requires “intruder alert drills” in all public schools, including elementary schools, among other measures.

Au said she’s not planning to change her safe storage bill to improve its chance of passage next year. “It’s not the bill that has to change, it’s the culture that has to change,” she said.

The culture she’s working with now includes several Republican colleagues who tell her, “I know it’s a good bill, but I just can’t do it in this environment.”

That “environment” at the state Capitol is leaving mentally ill Georgians on the streets by blocking legislation to expand mental health treatment in Georgia, as the state Senate did this year.

And it’s listening more to gun lobbyists warning about “the tyranny of the government” than to children afraid of the bad guys, and their parents who feel lucky to get them home, safe and sound.

Living in that kind of fear every day is a tyranny all its own, but it’s the reality here in Georgia for as far as the eye can see.