Thursday February 11th, 2016 10:06AM

Lawmakers pitch gun plans; leadership is cautious

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) -- There's been a lot of talk about gun laws since a shooter killed 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school. So far in the Georgia Capitol, there's been little action and the power players who matter most have expressed no desire to make major changes in either direction to Georgia weapons laws.

Rank-and-file Republicans have introduced varying bills that would expand the right to carry weapons in the already gun-friendly state, and some of the House's most conservative members want to limit any federal weapons restrictions that could come out of Congress. Another proposal would let local school officials choose administrators who could carry weapons on campus, with training.

Some Democrats have called for new gun restrictions, but they haven't offered specifics and their minority status in the General Assembly gives them little sway.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal hasn't included any gun-related bills in his priorities for the session that began Jan. 14. His lieutenants are quick to emphasize that the governor won't back, much less sign, any new gun restrictions or regulations. They otherwise suggest that he is content with the status quo, and instead turn questions toward mental health.

"He wants to make sure that administratively at the state level we are taking proper precautions when it comes to purchases by individuals with mental illness," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.

Immediately after the Newtown shootings, Robinson said the governor took action on three fronts: He asked state education authorities to review school safety procedures, directed state emergency management authorities to review emergency response protocol and ordered an assessment of the state's infrastructure for mental health care.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican and Deal ally, echoed the governor's sentiments. "I don't expect that the Georgia House will adopt a measure, if any is adopted at all, that will be restrictive of the rights of Georgians to own and bear arms," he said. "I think it's probably more appropriate that we step back, catch our breath, and look at the broader picture. I think this might be an appropriate time, for example to have a conversation about mental illness and how we treat mental illness."

Deal has not announced any findings or new policies resulting from his December directives. His proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 does not include new initiatives related to mental health.

Current law puts Georgia among the least restrictive states for gun possession, clearly exceeded only by the handful of "open-carry" states that don't require permits at all. Here, a license is required to carry a concealed handgun, and there are a handful of limitations on where an owner can carry a gun. They include churches, schools and government buildings, including the Capitol where the General Assembly convenes. Background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows are not required. There are no state laws relating to rapid-fire weapons - those sometimes called "assault weapons" - or high-capacity magazines.

The strongest desire to make changes thus far appears to be among conservative Republicans in the House. GOP senators have been largely silent on the topic.

Freshman Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw, has four bills that would effectively make Georgia an open-carry state, including in churches and on campuses. He hasn't taken any action beyond pre-filing the proposals before the session began and he conceded that he has laid no groundwork with Ralston or other House GOP leaders.

"I'm still new to this process," he said. "My strategy is that I know how important Second Amendment rights are to Georgians and to several members of the General Assembly. So I will do everything I can to move these bills forward."

Another pair of bills, each with multiple Republican sponsors, would exempt a Georgia-made weapon from any new federal restriction on firearms. Another would bar state law enforcement officers, prosecutors and other government employees from enforcing federal gun restrictions on Georgia-made weapons.

The proposals are patterned after laws enacted in at least five other states, including Tennessee. The idea is that the federal government has no authority over guns manufactured and sold in a single state, because Congress draws its power to regulate weapons under the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause, which refers to "interstate commerce."

According to legislative records, Ralston has not yet assigned either bill to a committee. The sponsors include Rep. Delvis Dutton, a tea party-aligned Republican from Glennville who tried to unseat Ralston Donna Sheldon as chair of the Republican Caucus.

In a recent interview, Ralston highlighted Rep. Paul Battles' proposal to allow designated school officials to carry weapons on campus. "That may be worth some discussion," the speaker said. Battles has emphasized that the proposal leaves the decision up to each school district, while requiring training for any employee authorized to carry a weapon.

The National Rifle Association has called for armed guards in every U.S. school. Many Georgia high schools already employ "school resource officers," who typically are armed. The state Department of Education does not track how many local schools have armed guards.

National teachers' unions have spoken out against any proposals that would make it easier for anyone other than sworn officers to have guns on campuses.

Georgia Superintendent John Barge tries to thread the needle on guns. He declined to comment on specific proposals, but spoke highly of school resource officers.

"They were added security for me and my building," he said of his time as a high school principal. But on the idea of arming any other adult on campus, Barge said, "I think I'd be a little more cautious than I would be in terms of an SRO."
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