ELLIJAY, Ga. - Criticized by one group as the "guns everywhere" bill, Georgia took a big step Wednesday toward expanding where licensed carriers can take their weapons, with the governor signing a law that allows them in bars without restriction and in some churches, schools and government buildings under certain circumstances.
Following mass shootings in recent years, some states have pursued stronger limits on guns while others like Georgia have taken the opposite path, with advocates arguing that people should be allowed to carry weapons as an issue of public safety. Republicans control large majorities in the Georgia General Assembly, and the bill passed overwhelming despite objections from some religious leaders and local government officials.
A few hundred gun rights supporters gathered at an outdoor pavilion along a river in north Georgia in the town of Ellijay for the bill signing by Gov. Nathan Deal and a barbecue. Many sported "Stop Gun Control" buttons and several had weapons holstered at their side. House Speaker David Ralston offered a thinly veiled critique of those who might oppose the bill while describing the people of his district.
"This is the apple capital of Georgia. And, yes, it's a community where we cling to our religion and our guns," Ralston said, drawing big applause in referencing a past comment made by President Barack Obama.
The bill makes several changes to state law and takes effect July 1. Besides in bars without restrictions, guns could be brought into some government buildings that don't have certain security measures, such as metal detectors or security guards screening visitors. Religious leaders would have the final say as to whether guns can be carried into their place of worship.
And school districts would now be able, if they choose, to allow some employees to carry a firearm on school grounds under certain conditions.
"This bill is about the good guys, you guys," bill sponsor Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, told the crowd. "Amid all the misinformation and emotions, one must remember that this bill isn't about irresponsibly arming the masses. This is a bill about safety and responsibility."
Opponents, however, include Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group co-founded by former Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived a shooting in 2011 and started a nationwide campaign on gun control. The group's executive director Pia Carusone on its website said, "the bill is extremism in action; it moves Georgia out of the mainstream."
The Georgia Municipal Association also was among those raising concerns, sending a letter to Deal arguing local governments couldn't afford to increase security. Deal, in his remarks, argued the bill empowers local decisions.
"House Bill 60 will protect law-abiding citizens by expanding the number of places that they can carry their guns without penalty, while at the same time this bill respects the rights of private property owners who still set the rules for their land and their buildings," Deal said.
That would include bar owners, who could post that firearms are not permitted in their establishments.
In Vienna, a city of about 4,000 residents south of Macon, it would cost $60,000 annually to increase security at city buildings, said Mayor Pro Tem Beth English. English, president of the Georgia Municipal Association, said she supports gun rights and has a carry permit but worries the added security costs will force the city to increase taxes.
"Do we raise taxes to provide the police protection or do we take the risk of potential injury to our public?" English said, noting emotions sometimes run high at city hall.
Some religious leaders also opposed the law, saying it will increase confusion. Under it, the assumption is still that guns aren't allowed unless otherwise noted. The law adds a provision, however, that those in violation cannot be arrested or fined more than $100 if they have a valid permit.
"This is the gun lobby foisting their agenda on churches, and I think it's a tragic violation of church and state," said the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
It's unclear whether any school districts plan to take advantage of the new law, but proponents hope it will deter violence.
"Schools have been gun-free zones for some time and those have been where some of the biggest instances of violence have occurred," said Gary Holland, a retired firefighter from Dawsonville who attended the bill signing. "If I'm a criminal, I would select a target where I know guns are not allowed because it would make the pickings easier."
The bill passed largely along party lines in the House and Senate. The most prominent Democrat to back the bill was state Sen. Jason Carter, who is running for governor.
Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, reiterated his support for the Second Amendment and noted he had worked to improve the bill to "ensure that places of worship have a real choice on whether to allow guns on their properties."