ATLANTA (AP) — Republicans pushed a bill through the Georgia House on Friday that would abolish the requirement for a background check and license to carry a handgun in public — moving a step closer to the “constitutional carry” that Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans have promised to deliver in an election year.
Republicans said the measure was needed to allow people to more easily protect themselves from crime, also citing civil unrest seen in a few 2020 protests over racial injustice in Atlanta. They also argued that it infringes on Second Amendment gun rights for people to have to apply for a permit and pay a fee, usually about $75, to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
“All of our other constitutional rights issued to us don’t require a fee to the government to exercise,” said Rep. Mandi Ballinger, the Canton Republican sponsoring the bill. “We can say what we want; we can assemble; We can worship as we please. All of these rights, none of them we have to pay for. This bill gets the government out of our way and allows us to do what we need to do in these precarious times.”
Democrats said the measure would fuel gun deaths by encouraging more guns, increase crime, and put police officers' lives in danger.
“It is going to mean more crime, more shootings," said Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat. "More guns equal more shootings. It’s not complicated. It’s very simple in fact.”
More than 20 other states allow concealed weapons in public without a permit, according to Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Georgia currently requires people to obtain a license to carry a loaded handgun outside their own homes, businesses or cars, although people can carry rifles and shotguns in many places without a permit and carry unloaded guns in cases.
To obtain a weapons license, residents must submit an application and fee and undergo fingerprinting in addition to a background check. Convicted felons and people who have been hospitalized for mental health problems or received treatment for drugs or alcohol in the years preceding the application aren't eligible.
Democrats said the process leads to thousands of people with criminal records or mental illness being denied licenses each year in Georgia.
“You’re wanting to relax what little check we have and why, what for?” asked Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat. “Because it’s inconvenient for law-abiding citizens to fill out a form?”
Republicans, though, said people would still have to pass a federal background check to buy a gun.
“This bill does not change who can carry or where you can carry," said Rep. Heath Clark, Republican from Warner Robins. "It simply says that if you meet all of the qualifications that the state has laid out to be able to carry a firearm in this state, that you can carry that firearm without having to ask permission and pay what is essentially a tax.”
Some said that delays in issuing licenses when courthouses were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic led them to change their mind and support the measure."
“What good is owning a gun, a firearm, if you can’t carry it to protect yourself?” Clark said.
When he ran for governor in 2018, Kemp promised to support constitutional carry, but little progress was made on the issue before this year. Kemp is pushing harder this year to abolish permits, facing a primary challenge from Republicans including former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Kemp says Georgia residents should have their constitutional rights protected and be able to protect themselves and their families amid a spike in violent crime.
“We now have a governor who has said that he will support permitless carry," said Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican who said he has long supported the move. "That’s the difference, ladies and gentlemen.”
But Democrats, warning of public opinion polls citing opposition, vowed to make Republicans pay for the move.
“We’ve all witnessed the pressures that the majority party is under, the pressure to cater to far-right activists that are so disconnected from reality that they cannot be reasoned with," Wilson said. "Almost every session you give them a nibble of what they want. But this is a whole lot more than just a nibble.”
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.