OPINION: Your kindergartner just had an active shooter drill. Thank a Georgia lawmaker.

Gun control supporters rally at a press conference called by Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Lawmakers are urging Gov. Brian Kemp to call a special legislative session on gun violence. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Gun control supporters rally at a press conference called by Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Lawmakers are urging Gov. Brian Kemp to call a special legislative session on gun violence. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

“We had an intruder drill at school,” a little boy told me this week. His class had been told to practice being very quiet and find a safe place to hide. “I hid in a cabinet,” he said.

Let those words sink in and ask yourself how we got here, because I often do. How did we as a state and a country end up telling children as young as kindergarteners that it’s now their job, not ours, to make sure they’re safe if a “bad guy” gets into their classroom.

That’s the message they got this year when, for the first time, all public schools in Georgia, from elementary to high school, were required to hold “intruder alert” drills for students and staff by Oct. 1. The mandate was a part of the “Safe Schools Act,” a piece of legislation that passed the General Assembly and was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this spring.

The bad guys are called “intruders” in the bill, and the other safety preparation measures for schools can apply to natural disasters, too. But the drills are really meant for one thing — a school shooting.

After Democrats tried and failed to add amendments to the bill, the measure was supported by large bipartisan majorities in both chambers because school shootings are a terrible reality for kids today and the reasoning seemed to be that it may be better for a child to know how to hide than not. But why are kindergartners the only ones we’re asking to do hard things?

That’s the question I’ve been getting from people around the state, the ones who are not partisan professionals, and who cannot for the life of them understand why so little seems to get done to protect kids from guns. Whether it’s a potential school shooting, a weapon in their own home, violence in their neighborhoods, or just a terrible act of violence that includes a firearm, Georgians I talk to see the situation getting worse, not better, and lawmakers doing less, not more.

I’ve met with local Atlanta moms — Democrats and Republicans — petrified that the next breaking news alert about a mass shooting will be at their children’s school. The shooting at Covenant Elementary School in Nashville last spring was literally too close to home. Is Atlanta next, they wonder?

Mayors around the state have reached out from rural and urban areas, too. They’re frustrated that they’re seeing gun laws loosened at the state level, while their communities are left to grapple with the consequences.

At a recent question and answer session with students at the University of Georgia, the questions turned from politics in general to gun violence specifically. UGA students had just seen the University of North Carolina reel from a campus shooter and worried it could happen in Athens, too.

When will something change, they all want to know? For now, I tell them, no time soon. No other issue seems to be as calcified by partisan politics, at the state or national level, as guns.

The presidential campaign is the most obvious example. Two weeks ago President Joe Biden created the first-ever White House office of Gun Violence Prevention. He hosted a Rose Garden press conference with gun control advocates, including U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath. The very next day, former President Donald Trump toured a gun shop in South Carolina with Georgia’s U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Trump posed for the media with a gun and told the store’s owners with a smile, “I want to buy a Glock!”

Even as some Georgians have become more worried about gun violence, the state itself has become the home to some of the largest gun manufacturers in the country. State officials began wooing gun makers like Remington years ago to persuade them to come to a gun-friendly state like ours. The companies are now more than just storefronts and factories — they’re now constituents, employers, and sometimes political donors.

Georgia also now has some of the most permissive gun laws in the nation. Gov. Brian Kemp made it a priority ahead of his reelection to eliminate the state requirement for a license to carry a concealed weapon. He signed the legislation in front of a gun store in 2022.

The political disconnect is real and voters see that. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed nearly seven in 10 Georgians opposed the bill to eliminate gun licenses last year. But the bipartisanship among voters hasn’t led to any changes at the state level. Even legislation that would seem to have bipartisan appeal is too heavy a lift.

A hearing for the Pediatric Safe Storage Act, which would have required guns to be locked in homes where children live, was called “a conversation” instead of a hearing and the bill never got a vote.

Lawmakers also had a chance, but failed, to pass mental health funding this year after passing a major mental health overhaul in 2022. The money could have been a crucial step toward addressing violence in the state, but after a nearly unanimous vote in the state House, it died in the Senate on the last day of the session.

Just weeks later, a shooter opened fire at a Midtown Atlanta doctor’s office and shot five people. Real lockdowns at schools across Atlanta followed. A massive press conference days later at the state Capitol featured a poster with an AJC editorial that read, “We don’t have to live like this.” But the reality is we do have to live like this — telling our children to be quiet and find a safe place to hide — as long as lawmakers refuse to do more.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that four people were killed in the Midtown shooting. Five were shot and one was killed. We regret the error.

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