Kemp sets the stage for a new Georgia fight over gun rights

Gov. Brian Kemp plans to endorse a measure that would allow Georgians to carry firearms without a state permit. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp plans to endorse a measure that would allow Georgians to carry firearms without a state permit. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp formally endorsed legislation to expand Georgians’ rights to carry firearms, putting a divisive effort to loosen gun restrictions at the top of his agenda amid a bruising reelection campaign.

The Republican announced his plan Wednesday to allow more Georgians to carry concealed weapons without a state permit, framing the initiative as the fulfillment of a pledge he made during his 2018 run for governor.

“In the face of rising violent crime across the country, law-abiding citizens should have their constitutional rights protected — not undermined,” he said in a speech at Adventure Outdoors, a massive gun range and firearms store in Smyrna.

“And while this position has recently become popular for others as we enter the campaign season, my position has remained the same,” Kemp said. “I believe the United States Constitution grants the citizens of our state the right to carry a firearm without state government approval.”

Gov. Brian Kemp announces plans for a gun rights expansion at Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna.

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It comes weeks after Kemp’s main Republican rival, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, attempted to outflank the governor by promising to pass a similar proposal. And it presents a new divide with Stacey Abrams and other Democrats who call for increased firearm restrictions to reduce violence.

“The same guy who pointed a gun at a teenager on TV now panders with reckless proposals threatening Georgia lives,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager. “As her opponents run to dangerous extremes and fight desperately to salvage their political careers, Abrams is fighting for Georgians and their safety.”

It sets the stage for what could be the most significant debate over gun legislation in the state since 2014, when then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a measure that allowed Georgians to legally carry firearms in schools, bars, churches and government buildings.

Critics warned that measure would lead to more violence. Still, even some prominent Democrats supported the legislation at the time, nodding to surveys that indicated many Georgians once backed a new expansion.

Public opinion has shifted since then as more voters call for stricter gun control measures after a spate of deadly mass shootings. Georgia Democrats who once jockeyed for the National Rifle Association’s seal of approval now war with the gun lobby.

Fueled by the party’s conservative base, state Republicans have moved in the opposite direction. Republican candidates for offices that have nothing to do with guns have vowed to fight for new expansions. And rank-and-file GOP legislators have put loosening restrictions at the center of their agenda. They note that 21 other states have laws regarding less stringent permitting requirements.

“We don’t believe Georgians should need a permit to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” said state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Paulding County Republican who last year sponsored similar legislation. “There’s no reason why we can’t get this done this year.”

Prominent role in agenda

Georgia law now requires Georgians to have a weapons carry license to wield a concealed weapon, though there are broad exceptions to the rule.

Gun owners must pay about $75 — depending on the county probate court — to register with the state and pass a background check before being issued a license to carry a handgun in public.

But gun rights advocates have long pushed for legislation to carry firearms without a permit, and it became an important litmus test for fractious Republican candidates trying to prove their conservative credentials during the 2018 campaign for governor.

Kemp, who famously ran TV ads wielding shotguns, endorsed a firearms measure no longer requiring permits during that campaign but hasn’t made it a legislative priority until now.

During his successful run for governor in 2018, Brian Kemp made it clear in TV ads that he supported an expansion of gun rights, although he hasn't made that a legislative priority until now.

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That’s left him open to attacks from Perdue, a former ally whose challenge has triggered other debates over cultural issues popular with the GOP base. He recently accused Kemp of being a “career politician who hasn’t delivered” for gun rights advocates.

“Real leaders lead from the start — and it’s time Georgia had a governor who shows principled leadership when it matters most,” Perdue said. “That’s exactly what I’ll deliver on day one.”

The governor didn’t offer specifics about the plan, but he said it would be designed to “give people their constitutional right to carry without a piece of paper from the government.” It’s one of the first legislative initiatives he’s outlined for 2022, signifying its prominent role in his agenda.

Pro-gun groups, meanwhile, are already mobilizing around the idea. A top NRA official was at Kemp’s event to endorse the measure — and announce the powerful group will hold its annual conference in Atlanta in 2025.

“We shouldn’t have to fight for our God-given right to defend ourselves,” NRA Vice President Willes Lee said, portraying the legislation as a way to fight “anti-American, anti-gun zealots who try to take our civil rights.”

Democrats and their allies frame the measure as an unnecessary political fight that will inevitably lead to more gun violence. State Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, compared the need for a concealed weapons permit with the requirements for a driver’s license.

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat from Johns Creek, would like to see the requirements for gaining a license to carry weapons in Georgia approach the standards for obtaining a driver's license. (Hyosub Shin /

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

“To obtain a Georgia driver’s license, one has to demonstrate competency to drive on public roads, fulfill an educational requirement, show proof of ID, and have no major traffic violation convictions in the last year,” she said. “Can we agree such licensing requirements exist for good reason?”

James Woodall, a civil rights advocate who once led the Georgia NAACP, said the push for looser restrictions is “100% politics” and would distract from meaningful changes to build trust between communities and law enforcement.

And U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who became a gun control advocate after the murder of her teenage son, said Kemp’s proposal will have deadly consequences.

“Gov. Kemp’s outrageous proposal endangers Georgia families. Full stop,” she said. “Irresponsible gun laws like this ripped my family apart, and I am tired of our leaders turning a blind eye to safety.”