Political divide over guns holds in Georgia following mass shootings

Democrats seek firearm restrictions; Republicans shun new limits

Georgia Democrats stepped up demands for new firearms restrictions Monday after deadly mass shootings at a medical office in Midtown Atlanta and a shopping mall in Texas, the latest in a wave of violence that turned seemingly safe places into scenes of carnage.

But the shootings haven’t changed the political dynamic in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders have shared condolences and praised law enforcement — but have consistently rejected calls for increased limits on who can purchase or carry deadly weapons.

Declaring they are fed up with inaction, a group of Democratic state lawmakers issued a letter pressing Kemp to immediately call a special legislative session to “address firearm related public safety.” A broader coalition of Democrats will make a similar call Wednesday.

“This must stop,” stated the letter, sent by a quartet of lawmakers who represent parts of Gwinnett County. “We owe it to hard working Georgia families who deserve to go to work or go to school without fear that they or one of their loved ones will not come home.”

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff added his voice to the chorus in an interview, recounting a heightened sense of awareness as he and his wife took their 17-month-old daughter to Atlanta’s zoo for the first time this weekend.

“I knew while I was there that I and every single parent at Zoo Atlanta were asking themselves the same question: Is someone going to pull out a firearm and attack the children and families at Zoo Atlanta?” Ossoff said.

The Democrat added: “Why do Georgia families have to live with that fear? It is a choice that has been made by state policymakers to allow communities across our state to be flooded with firearms and to not even place the most basic, commonsense restrictions” on weapons.

‘No longer an option’

Kemp’s office didn’t immediately comment, but advisers say his support for gun rights hasn’t changed. He ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of expanding access to firearms, helped by a wave of attention surrounding his provocative pro-gun TV ads.

And as he faced a tough primary challenge last year, Kemp signed a measure that allows Georgians to carry concealed handguns without applying for a license from the state, staging the ceremony at a rural firearms store where one of his daughters bought her first handgun.

Meanwhile, Democratic-backed proposals to require background checks, new waiting periods, increased safety training mandates for gunowners and red flag laws limiting firearms for those struggling with mental illness have foundered under the Gold Dome.

Nearly two dozen gun restriction bills were introduced in the General Assembly this year. None reached a committee vote.

And though GOP leaders frequently highlight the need for better mental health services, a major expansion that easily passed the Georgia House this year and was backed by Kemp failed to clear the Senate amid internal Republican squabbling.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

One of the few high-profile Georgia Republicans who have signaled a new openness to gun regulation is Geoff Duncan, a former lieutenant governor who is now a CNN analyst.

Duncan called for a “conservative and comprehensive conversation” after the 2022 shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. In April, he admonished conservatives that “doing nothing about gun violence is no longer an option for Republicans.”

“The Second Amendment has nothing to do with cold-blooded murder,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, stopping short of calling for specific legislation.

‘It’s a choice’

Top Georgia Democrats — particularly those running for statewide office — once routinely steered clear of backing gun restrictions. But mass shootings have sharpened political divisions over firearms, even as more voters shift toward support for new limits.

An AJC poll in 2022 showed most Georgians — including a majority of Republicans — opposed “permit-less carry” measures such as the one Kemp signed into law. Other recent surveys indicate a majority of Georgians support new gun regulations.

Even so, Kemp and other statewide Republicans who back permissive gun policies swept to victories in last year’s election with agendas focusing on public safety and economic growth. And Republicans solidified their majorities in the Legislature through the redistricting process.

The steep political divides over firearms resurfaced in the past week after a shooting inside the Northside Medical Midtown office building left one person dead and four others injured.

Police charged Deion Patterson, 24, with opening fire on the five women with a semiautomatic handgun. Patterson’s attorney said his client has mental health issues.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

And Texas authorities say a 33-year-old armed with an AR-15-style rifle opened fire Saturday at a popular shopping center in a Dallas suburb, killing eight people and wounding at least seven others before he was fatally shot by a police officer.

The violence has sparked calls for swift steps to enact new firearms limits, including editorials over the weekend by the AJC and Dallas Morning News. Gun control advocates in Georgia charted plans to step up their pressure campaigns, including a rally scheduled for Saturday in Atlanta.

Ossoff said he was confident of “instant bipartisan consensus” on gun safety measures if Kemp called an emergency special session, reflecting a political chasm between the two. The governor, who is term-limited, could challenge Ossoff in 2026 when he’s up for a second term.

“Why isn’t the state Legislature in an emergency session?” Ossoff asked, saying that lawmakers should swiftly work to pass red flag legislation and repeal concealed carry expansions. “What do they have to do right now if not address an out-of-control level of gun violence in our state?”

He added: “Why do doctors and nurses and front-office workers and teachers and parents have to live in fear? It’s a choice that Georgia policymakers have made.”