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Up in Arms: Georgia Governor To Sign Controversial Gun Bill Wednesday

A new state gun law will allow licensed owners to carry guns in bars, government buildings, and some churches.

ATLANTA – Its official name is the “Safe Carry Protection Act.”

But critics are calling it the “Guns Everywhere Bill.”

At noon Wednesday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is scheduled to sign the sweeping legislation into law. One of the most permissive state gun laws in the nation, it will allow licensed owners to carry firearms into more public places than at any time in the past century, including churches, bars and government buildings that don't have security checkpoints.

The law also authorizes school districts to appoint staffers to carry firearms. It allows churches to "opt-in" if they want to allow weapons. Bars could already “opt-in” to allow weapons, but under the new law they must opt out if they want to bar weapons. Permit-holders who accidentally bring a gun to an airport security checkpoint will now be allowed to pick up their weapon and leave with no criminal penalty. (At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a record 111 guns were found at TSA screening areas last year.)

Read a summary of the law's main provisions here.

Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group co-founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, has called the legislation “the most extreme gun bill in America,” and mounted an aggressive campaign against it. So have other gun-control organizations, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, has blasted the law. "Police officers do not want more people carrying guns on the street,” said Rotondo, “particularly police officers in inner city areas."

But Georgia state Rep. Rick Jasperse (R.-Jasper), who introduced the bill, insisted that it was not “extreme,” adding that it was simply about restoring Second Amendment rights and allowing licensed gun owners to carry their weapons in more places.

"When we limit a Georgian's ability to carry a weapon -- to defend themselves -- we're empowering the bad guys," Jasperse said.

When state lawmakers passed HB 60 on March 20 – the last day of the legislative session – the National Rifle Association called it a “historic victory for the Second Amendment.”

Deal, a Georgia Republican running for his second term this fall and facing a GOP primary challenge on May 20, had not previously taken a public stance on the bill before announcing he would sign the bill at the event Wednesday in Ellijay, Ga.

But many political observers noted a veto was highly unlikely, since Deal would risk alienating his conservative base. And in a state that values the right to bear arms, even Deal’s gubernatorial opponent, Democratic state senator Jason Carter – the grandson of President Jimmy Carter – voted for the bill. (Carter’s office says that he helped strip the bill of some of its more controversial provisions, like allowing guns on college campuses.)

Truly Extreme?

Opponents, like Stephanie Stone of Atlanta, argue the law misinterprets the Second Amendment and will promote a culture of guns.

"I think this bill is reckless,” she said. “I think it's dangerous and irresponsible."

Stone’s only son, Paul Sampleton, was shot and killed in an armed robbery a year and a half ago.

"It's hard to see a 14-year-old kid who had so much life in him -- with so much to offer the world – gone," Stone said.

Image: Paul Sampleton, right, with his mother Stephanie Stone.
Paul Sampleton, right, with his mother Stephanie Stone. Paul was shot and killed in an armed robbery.Courtesy Stephanie Stone

Some law enforcement groups are also slamming the bill for a provision that prevents officers from “detaining a person for the sole purpose of investigating whether such a person has a weapons carry license.”

Both sides of the issue, however, are interpreting portions of the bill in very different ways.

The bill’s detractors are emphasizing a provision that they argue will expand Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, allowing felons to use to claim self-defense if they feel threatened and kill someone with a gun. Those opponents cite a Georgia Senate Research Office analysis of the bill.

But the bill’s backers point out that although felons could try to mount a “stand your ground” defense, a judge ultimately decides whether that defense holds up in court.

Jerry Henry, the executive director of Georgia Carry, whose members lobbied for the bill, said that when it comes to “stand your ground,” this bill has “nothing new.” Felons could claim a “stand your ground” defense under previous law, he said, if they defended themselves using a baseball bat, for example.

Jasperse, the bill's co-sponsor, said the Senate Research Office's analysis misinterpreted the law.

Up in Arms

Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, the gun debate has escalated.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, more than 1,500 gun-related bills were introduced around the country last year, though only 123 became law.

So far this year, 10 states have enacted laws strengthening gun regulations, the Law Center reports. Eight states have loosened some regulations.

Following the governor’s signing ceremony, Georgia will become the ninth. Its new law will take effect July 1.