Senate passes bill eliminating need for Georgians to get a license to carry handguns

The Georgia Senate voted along party lines Monday to back legislation that would let Georgians carry a concealed handgun without first getting a license from the state.

Supporters of the measure said it removes an unnecessary barrier to their constitutional right to carry handguns. Opponents said there already are few barriers in Georgia and the proposal will remove one of the only checks to make sure people carrying weapons have a legal right to do so.

Senate Bill 319 passed 34-22, with the Republican majority supporting it and Democrats opposing it.

State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, the Dallas Republican sponsoring the proposal, said there has been an increase in Georgians getting carry licenses and purchasing guns since the coronavirus pandemic began two years ago. He said the gun owners are going through the licensing process because it’s the current law.

“What they don’t want is to be slow-walked through a completely unnecessary step in the request to legally have the ability to defend themselves,” Anavitarte said.

The senator didn’t say how long it takes to get a license or provide evidence that county officials have “slow-walked” applications.

SB 319 would allow a “lawful weapons carrier” to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed — meaning guns will still be prohibited in places such as the secured areas of airports or government buildings that have security at the entrance, including the state Capitol. A lawful weapons carrier is defined as anyone who is now lawfully allowed to have a gun.

Those who have prior drug convictions, have been convicted of a felony or are facing felony charges, have been treated for mental health issues or substance abuse issues within the past five years, or have been involuntarily committed to a mental health hospital will still be prohibited from purchasing and possessing handguns.

Currently, Georgians seeking to carry a handgun have to apply for a license with their local probate court or sheriff’s office (depending on the county), get fingerprinted, submit to a background check and pay a fee up to $75. Background checks still will be required when purchasing a handgun from a store or a dealer under SB 319.

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to require that the recipients of handguns undergo background checks before obtaining a weapon through personal sales or transfers. That amendment failed on a party-line vote.

Au said a 2017 study by the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 1 in 4 gun sales and transfers were completed without a background check.

“This leaves a huge hole in our safety net, further exacerbated by the fact that with the passage of SB 319, this background check at the point of sale would be the first and only way to weed out those who should not have legal access to firearms,” she said.

Some Republican lawmakers, who earlier in the day shared their outrage at the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, asked their colleagues to consider the Ukrainians when deciding how to vote on the bill.

“I would be willing to bet you today that 99% of the people of Ukraine would give anything that they have to have a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” said state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican.

Before last week, Ukrainian citizens could only use guns in private, but the government recently approved a law allowing the weapons to be carried in public.

For years, gun rights advocates have pushed to rid the state of its gun licensing process, but the proposal picked up steam this year when Gov. Brian Kemp — who faces a stiff GOP primary fight for reelection — said he supported passing permit-less carry legislation this year.

An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll found in January that about 70% of Georgia voters surveyed — and 54% of Republicans — believe gun owners should be required to get a license before carrying a concealed handgun. And law enforcement officers are split over whether the state should move toward allowing Georgians to carry handguns without a permit.

Anavitarte said that while the licensing process puts a barrier between law-abiding citizens and their Second Amendment rights, criminals can get access to guns illegally regardless of the permitting process.

“Some people choose to blame inanimate objects for the actions of criminals and then associate the actions of criminals with law-abiding citizens,” he said. “That kind of flawed logic leads to one thing: more people — good people — from all walks of life going to buy more guns and more ammo before some gun-grabbing politician makes it harder to protect themselves, their family and their property.”

The Senate also approved two other gun-related bills on Monday.

Senate Bill 259 would prohibit government agencies from sharing information about those who have been granted or applied for concealed carry licenses. The bill also bans local governments from prohibiting anyone from firing a gun on private property if the land is 10 acres or larger. SB 259 passed on a 33-19 party-line vote, with Republicans supporting the legislation.

Senate Bill 479, which passed 43-9 with bipartisan support, would require prosecutors to charge someone who already was a convicted felon and later was arrested with multiple firearms to be charged with a separate offense for each weapon.

All three measures now head to the House for its approval.