Georgia Republicans put gun measures at heart of 2022 message

10/01/2018 -- Jasper, Georgia -- An Appalachian Gun, Pawn & Range employee hands out Brain Kemp campaign stickers during a campaign stop in Jasper, Monday, October 1, 2018. Monday was the first day of Brian Kemp's weeklong bus tour where he and his campaign will visit 27 counties in 5 days. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

10/01/2018 -- Jasper, Georgia -- An Appalachian Gun, Pawn & Range employee hands out Brain Kemp campaign stickers during a campaign stop in Jasper, Monday, October 1, 2018. Monday was the first day of Brian Kemp's weeklong bus tour where he and his campaign will visit 27 counties in 5 days. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

When Brian Kemp ran for the state’s top job four years ago, his support for “permitless carry” and shotgun-wielding ads helped him emerge from a crowded Republican primary. Now, he’s again turning to a gun rights expansion to separate him from another GOP rival.

The governor is set to sign legislation Tuesday to let Georgians carry concealed handguns without a permit, marking perhaps the biggest rollback of firearms restrictions since a 2014 law that allowed residents to legally carry firearms in some schools, bars and churches.

The measure, Senate Bill 319, is one of many engineered by Kemp and his GOP allies in part to bolster his chances in the May 24 primary against a tough Republican opponent.

But Kemp and other Republicans have placed a special emphasis behind the gun measure, which they often call “constitutional carry,” to demonstrate to GOP voters that loosening firearms regulations are a cornerstone of their 2022 campaign arguments.

“To me, the whole constitutional carry piece this year is a public safety issue — with what we’ve seen with civil unrest, rise in violent crime in a lot of our cities across the country,” Kemp said. “And Atlanta is no different than that. People are scared. They’re fed up.”

Kemp endorsed a similar firearms measure during his 2018 campaign, which also featured the head-turning TV ad that showed him pointing a shotgun toward a stammering actor who wanted to date his daughter.

AJC file

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It helped him land a runoff spot against then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who was the presumed GOP favorite and a known skeptic of the legislation. Under pressure from pro-gun groups, Cagle softened his opposition to the idea just before the primary.

But the governor did little to make the issue a legislative priority in his first three years in office, pushing more limited measures sought by Second Amendment advocates.

That changed after former U.S. Sen. David Perdue entered the race and promptly accused Kemp of being a “career politician who hasn’t delivered” for gun rights advocates or backed other cultural issues popular with the party’s conservative core.

In swift order, Kemp called a January press conference at a gun range in Smyrna to endorse the proposal and declare his view that the Constitution “grants the citizens of our state the right to carry a firearm without state government approval.”

The measure moved relatively quickly through the legislative chambers, winning passage along party-line votes in the House and Senate over the objections of Democrats who said it would only lead to more gun violence.

State Rep. Shea Roberts pointed to data from the Council of Probate Court Judges that showed more than 5,000 requests for concealed carry permits were denied last year, mostly for prior criminal convictions. The Atlanta Democrat said she was “so tired of Republicans prioritizing political pandering over public safety.”

01/11/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia State Rep. Shea Robert participates in a swearing-in with her daughter Brigid Arndt inside the House Chambers during the first day of the 2021 legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Monday, January 11, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

“With the increase in violent crime and mental health crises, the last thing we need is to take away one of the only effective tools law enforcement officers have to preempt dangerous folks from carrying guns in public,” she said.

‘Liberty Robot?’

Indeed, even GOP leaders steered clear of this measure in past years, focusing instead on more piecemeal gun-related legislation. But with primaries looming and strong challengers facing Kemp and down-ticket candidates, embracing a more expansive package was an easier sell.

Kemp recently put it this way: “This environment now has it where we can get the votes in the General Assembly where we can get this passed.”

It’s also a key message for federal candidates. Yard signs for Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, the owner of an Athens gun store, feature images of assault rifles. And several GOP Senate contenders at a Saturday forum in Clyde’s northeast Georgia district promised to work to pass a federal “permitless carry” law.

Democrats are certain the measure will also energize their supporters. In an impassioned March speech, state Rep. Josh McLaurin criticized “liberty robot” legislation meant solely to energize the GOP base even if it led to damaging consequences in a November election.

He also pointed out something that he and other Democrats who spoke against the bill during a lengthy debate had in common.

“Every Democrat who spoke from the well tonight flipped one of your seats on the message that the public doesn’t want stuff like this,” McLaurin said, scanning the chamber to meet the eyes of GOP lawmakers. “Check the list.”

And Roberts said she “can’t wait to see voters hold Republicans accountable at the ballot box this year.”

Their remarks reflected a shift on firearms-related issues. Not long ago, prominent Democrats lined up behind gun rights legislation, nodding to surveys that indicated widespread support for firearms expansions.

But a series of deadly mass shootings at schools and public events have spurred calls for stricter gun control measures, something that recent polls indicate is supported by a growing number of Georgians.

And rather than jockey for the National Rifle Association’s seal of approval, state Democrats now wear their “F” ratings like a badge of honor.

‘We need to protect ourselves’

State Republicans have moved in the opposite direction.

The NRA remains a potent force in state politics — and is widely expected to endorse Kemp’s reelection bid. But small pro-gun offshoots have also sprung up to lobby for far-reaching changes, drawing condemnation from state Sen. Jeff Mullis and other GOP leaders for their no-compromise tactics.

In recent weeks, many Republican legislators have cited Atlanta’s violent crime rate and the large protests against police brutality in 2020 that led state officials to cordon off the Georgia Capitol. And polls show scaling back gun rules remains highly popular with GOP primary voters.

Even the specter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been invoked, as state Sen. Lindsey Tippins and others have cited the menace of foreign wars as a reason to roll back state gun restrictions.

Mar. 30,  2017 - Atlanta - Rep. Mandi L. Ballinger, R - Canton,  points to her new rules committee badge after the house insisted on it's version of the "Campus Carry" legislation which she sponsored.  The 40th and final legislative day of the 2017 General Assembly.   BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

The heart of their message, though, is one Kemp and his allies intend to highlight on the campaign trail, both to fend off GOP challengers in May and encourage reliably conservative voters to turn out in the November general election.

“We need to protect ourselves,” said a sponsor of the measure, state Rep. Mandi Ballinger. “And this bill allows us to do so without having to pay money to the government to do it.”


The bill awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature would allow a “lawful weapons carrier” to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed — meaning guns would 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.

Causes for preventing the purchase or possession of handguns would be: Prior drug convictions, felony charges or convictions, treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse within the past five years and involuntary commitment to a mental health hospital.