How Georgia Republicans passed a gun expansion after years of gridlock

Gov. Brian Kemp’s support for “permit-less carry” legislation helped him emerge from a crowded Republican primary in 2018. But it took more than three years for Kemp to devote the political capital – and corral the votes – to pass the legislation.

Interviews with key legislators and GOP officials helped piece together how the legislation, which lets Georgians carry concealed handguns without a permit, crossed the finish line after years of gridlock that dates back decades.

The timing comes at a vital moment for Kemp, who is locked in a brutal GOP primary. His rival, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, contends Kemp has waited too long to fulfil his pro-gun campaign promise, and credits his campaign for forcing the matter.

For years, such legislation was scorned by even top Georgia GOP leaders. It was never a priority for Kemp’s predecessors, Nathan Deal or Sonny Perdue. And in the 2018 primary, then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle initially opposed the idea before backtracking.

So-called “constitutional carry” proposals were held up in Kemp’s first years in office, too. When state Rep. Mandi Ballinger tried to push a similar measure in 2021, it was blocked by House leaders after a spate of deadly shootings at metro Atlanta spas.

Ahead of this year’s legislative session, however, Kemp’s allies sensed a change in the political climate that would let him meet his campaign pledge – and deprive Perdue of a potential line of attack.

In late 2021, Kemp began talking up the issue in interviews and campaign events. When House Speaker David Ralston indicated to a grassroots group in December that he was open to the legislation, a GOP official said it was “off to the races.”

The governor huddled with key Republican lawmakers in early January to press the issue. State Rep. Rick Jasperse, long a proponent of the measure, said he left the gathering with a sense of inevitability.

“This is one of his campaign promises. It was time for it to happen,” said Jasperse. “But we needed his support. It couldn’t have happened without him. It’s just the right moment.”

Jasperse and his allies had already laid some of the groundwork in the Legislature. State Sen. Jason Anavitarte gathered signatures for the measure during the special session in late 2021 meant to show momentum behind the proposal.

“We all knew we wanted to get it done,” said Anavitarte, a freshman who spent weeks lobbying colleagues to back the bill.

“It was a matter of putting our egos aside and we knew for our caucuses and to the governor it was important, and that preempted anything else that could get in the way.”

They were driven not just by the desire to help Kemp but also by sense of self-preservation. Some GOP legislators are facing tough primary challengers in the May 24 primary, others want to give conservatives more reason to drive up turnout in November.

Republicans pushed through the measure on a party-line vote despite threats from Democrats armed with polls that showed the legislation was unpopular with most Georgia voters.

State Democrats launched TV ads dubbing the measure “criminal carry” and predicted that removing the $75 carry permit would lead to more violence. A mobile billboard that warned it would make “Georgia less safe” crisscrossed the streets outside the store.

As Gov. Brian Kemp prepared to sign a gun expansion into law, state Democrats arranged for this mobile billboard to patrol the streets outside.

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“Georgia needs more common sense gun safety laws - not fewer,” said James Beverly, the top Democrat in the Georgia House.

“We can no longer excuse senseless violence that is furthered by senseless bills like permit-less carry. Georgians deserve more, and I expect we’ll see voters demand better at the ballot box this November.”

Illustrating the partisan divide over gun issues, Perdue promptly claimed credit for the shift, saying it was “too bad it took me getting in the race for them to get any energy to get that done.”

The governor denied that political pressure led to his election-year push for the legislation. He said other developments helped win over Republicans, who have ruled both legislative chambers for nearly two decades.

Rising violent crime rates and the protests for social justice that rocked Atlanta and other Georgia cities in 2020 prompted Republicans to start framing the gun expansion as a public safety measure.

And pandemic-related delays for permits sent frustrated Georgians to bombard their state legislators seeking an overhaul. Kemp tied those two threads together shortly after he signed the bill, saying “the votes hadn’t been there – but a lot changed during Covid.”

“When you have local probate judges that are taking a year or for 16 months to issue concealed weapons permits,” the governor said, “people can’t wait that long when people are shooting your neighborhoods up.”

Insider’s note: This was ripped and expanded from the Morning Jolt.