OPINION: Bullets are flying across Georgia and mayors are asking for help

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly got a letter last week from nearly 50 Georgia mayors, all asking them to pass more funding for mental health and stricter gun laws.

It wasn’t a majority of mayors, but they represented every kind of community in the state — from Atlanta to Adel, Sandy Springs to Sharpsburg, and from Young Harris to Santa Claus.

Their cities are rural and urban, liberal and conservative. And they don’t have much more in common than their mayors, who are all calling on Kemp to deal with the gun violence that is ripping many communities apart. If the violence hasn’t come to their towns yet, they fear it will. And they all say the state can do more to prevent at least some of it from happening.

“You have in your authority the ability to diminish gun violence,” the letter says.

The letter landed in Kemp’s and lawmakers’ inboxes last week, just days before the Labor Day weekend proved the mayors’ point with a rash of shootings across the state.

In Atlanta, a 25-year-old valet driver was shot to death in Buckhead trying to stop a car break-in, while four separate shootings killed two others inside the city limits Saturday night. Six more people were shot in Northwest Atlanta Sunday, while a young woman was killed in an apparent road rage shooting the next day.

The Labor Day weekend shootings didn’t stop at the Atlanta city limits. A 20-year-old man was fatally shot in Statesboro, followed by the shooting death of a young mother in Cuthbert. A 70-year-old woman was shot near a Burlington Coat Factory in Columbus, while four people were gunned down in Dublin Monday morning. A 7-year-old boy was shot and killed at a Lithonia gas station with his father’s gun Monday evening. The list goes on.

Mayor David Pennington’s city of Dalton is in conservative northwest Georgia. But he said there are no politics behind what the mayors are asking for.

“I think it’s just logic,” he said. “I don’t think it’s conservative or liberal when you have the amount of shootings that we’re having now, particularly with the mental health issues that we have in this country.”

The letter from the mayors lays out a half dozen policy measures the local leaders want, starting with an increase in funding for mental health services.

The mayors also called for background checks for all firearms or transfers; requirements for safe storage of guns; a focus on high-capacity weapons; and a new process to identify people who should not have access to guns.

Pennington said Dalton has not experienced the kind of gun violence that Atlanta and other places have, “but it will.”

He’s especially worried about the critical lack of mental health treatment options in the area, which leaves people who are struggling with addiction or mental illness in Dalton’s emergency rooms and jails instead of facilities where they can be properly treated. Many mentally ill end up in Georgia’s jails after they’ve committed violent crimes.

“The states have gone out of the mental health business, and what little bit the state passed last year has not even scratched the surface,” Pennington said.

Further south in Jackson, Georgia, Carlos Duffey said gun violence is “at the top of the list right now” for mayors looking for help from Georgia lawmakers and leaders.

“I’m a small rural Georgia and we have of course experienced elevated rates of gun violence and gun activity,” Duffey said. “And so I’d like to see some of these things if we can help our local communities curb it. I don’t know what that is, but I would at least like to have that discussion.”

Like Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Duffey grew up in Jackson and said the kind of violence he sees there now is unlike anything he saw growing up there. “It’s not like it’s a weekly occurrence, but one is too many.”

Even though mayors have to deal with the effects of gun violence, they have no power to pass statewide laws to address it. So in Jackson, they’re doing what they can, including starting an anonymous tip line to encourage people to share details of crimes they may know about.

“My biggest concern is really the community speaking up and speaking out in a town like Jackson where a lot of the people in our town are related to each other,” he said. “We have these acts of violence and no one sees anything.”

Under Kemp, the General Assembly has significantly loosened gun restrictions, including eliminating the requirement to have a license to carry a firearm in Georgia.

Mental health funding, which was on track to pass earlier this year, stalled after the state Senate blocked a House-passed bill to get it done.

Mayor Kelly Girtz from Athens started the letter. He said a combination of the Nashville elementary school shootings and a trip overseas led him to take action. He said he realized at one point during his trip that he wasn’t feeling the constant, visceral stress that a shooting could break out anytime, as he often feels back home.

“I remember thinking on the way back, ‘I’m just going to use whatever relationships and whatever ability I have to hopefully move the meter.”

Not all Georgia mayors signed on to the letter, but many did. Along with being mayors, they’re parents and grandparents, former teachers and law enforcement officers. They each have their reasons. And they all want more done.

Unfortunately, even some of the mayors who joined the effort don’t have confidence that anything will change.

“The local governments are providing the policing, fire, whatever needs to be done. And the entertainment comes in from Atlanta and Washington,” Mayor Pennington in Dalton said. “It’s frustrating to say the least, that we have some really critical issues and they don’t seem to want to address anything except call each other names.”