A gun bill returns with a vengeance

Two weeks ago, a gun bill that had lingered in the state Capitol’s gearbox for more than a year finally cratered over the issue of allowing concealed weapons on public university campuses.

But it is a testament to the influence and stamina of Second Amendment enthusiasts involved that a new, second draft is no mere shadow of its predecessor.

Oh, no. House Bill 875, under the sponsorship of Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, not only includes a backdoor entrance for guns on university campuses, but would give concealed weaponry an unprecedented, protected spot right next to you – in bars, churches, libraries, senior centers, aquatic centers, at zoning hearings and city council meetings.

buttonsLast month, Capitol lawyers determined that university presidents couldn’t choose, campus by campus, where hidden, permitted weapons could be toted – killing an effort at compromise over the issue.

H.B. 875 simply decriminalizes the matter. Licensed carriers caught with concealed weapons on public campuses would not be subject to arrest, and would only face a civil fine of up to $100.

That’s a pin prick compared to the cost of speeding through a school zone.

Bars and houses of worship would be new territories for concealed weaponry, too. A state prohibition now applies to both. Under H.B. 875, establishments of both kinds would be able to prohibit weaponry – as would all owners of private property. But it would be a matter of criminal trespass that they would have to enforce themselves.

Some of the biggest names in Georgia religion argued against H.B. 875 this week: Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple synagogue in Atlanta, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

All were overshadowed by Mike Griffin, new spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Convention, who endorsed the measure on behalf of his denomination, its 3,600 churches and 1.3 million members.

“It’s a sanctity of human life issue, as far as I’m concerned,” Griffin said at a committee hearing on Thursday.

The theological soundness of Griffin’s point wasn’t the crux of his testimony. It was the fact that Southern Baptists dominate Georgia’s Republican primary, which is now only 100 days away.

Nonetheless, the laity present at the House Public Safety Committee hearing made a few stabs at doctrine. Is it wise to mix alcohol and guns? asked state Rep. Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta.

“At the Lord’s Supper, they had wine,” replied Carolyn Meadows, there to endorse the bill as a board member of the National Rifle Association. We have to assume Meadows meant that Jesus or one of his disciples would have been carrying when the Romans came for him – if only holstered Glocks had been around.

But it is the newest section of the bill, borrowed from legislation already enacted in Kansas, that may be the most far-reaching. Cities and counties would have to permit concealed-carry in all government buildings – or provide workday security at those locations. This would apply to any building owned by local governments – libraries as well as city halls, rec centers as well as senior centers.

Certainly, many cities and county governments would have no problem with concealed-carry on their premises. But those that objected would have to pay dearly for their stance.

The Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia have raised questions – specifically about a provision in H.B. 875 that would allow citizens to take localities to court if they suspect the Legislature’s will were being thwarted. Local governments would be liable for all legal fees if they lose.

“This is going to open us up to frivolous lawsuits. Any costs, any liabilities are going to fall on the taxpayers of Georgia,” said Todd Edwards, lobbyist for the ACCG.

When it comes to guns, there are two philosophies at the state Capitol. And it is very clear which one is winning. One acknowledges the protections of the Second Amendment, but also believes that a proliferation of firearms can result in nothing but more violence.

That view was personified at last week’s hearing by Michael and Jeri Bishop of Pine Mountain, Ga. Their son Jamie, a German instructor, was one of those slain by a gunman at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Michael Bishop noted the proliferation of “Guns Save Lives” buttons. “Our hard-earned knowledge is that guns take lives. And the more powerful and sophisticated they are, the more lives they can and do take,” he said. “We reject the notion that consenting to guns in school for persons with concealed-carry permits would better prevent the sort of senseless violence that took 32 lives at Virginia Tech.”

The couple was asked no questions, and sat down in silence.

The dominant philosophy among Republicans – in this election year, at least – is that an armed class of the right kind of citizen needs to be empowered, even nurtured. Ready to stand up and throw themselves into the next crisis.

In the midst of Thursday’s questioning, state Rep. Dusty Hightower, R-Carrollton, seemed to focus on what might have been at Virginia Tech. “If the right person’s there – I’d put a bullet right between his eyes,” he said.

The Bishops sat directly in front of Hightower. No doubt, the couple will remember many of the things that have been said and done over the last seven years to console them for their loss. Thursday’s hearing won’t be among them.

The House committee passed H.B. 875 on a voice vote.


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