Willard Jones holds his grandson, Mason Hodges, as they line up for barbecue Wednesday after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal visited Ellijay, Ga., for a signing ceremony for House Bill 60, legislation expanding where people with licenses to carry can bring their guns in Georgia. At left is Ron Gietzen from Lawrenceville, Ga., one of many who wore a pistol in a holster as they attended the event.Photo by John Rawlston.
After 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 a gun bill passed overwhelmingly despite objections from some religious leaders and local government officials. One group outside Georgia criticized it as the "guns everywhere" bill.
Opponents including former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., tried to block the bill's passage. Supporters flooded Gov. Nathan Deal's office with pleas to sign the measure, which the National Rifle Association called "the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history."
For the signing by Deal and a barbecue, a few hundred gun rights supporters gathered at an outdoor pavilion in the North Georgia town of Ellijay. Many in the audience sported "Stop Gun Control" buttons, and some had weapons holstered at their sides. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, 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. Guns could be brought into some government buildings that don't have certain security measures, such as a metal detector or security guards screening visitors. It allows religious leaders to make the decisions about whether people with permits can bring guns into their places of worship.
And school districts would now be able, if they wanted, to allow some employees to carry firearms on school grounds under certain conditions.
The bill, which takes effect July 1, also legalizes the use of silencers for hunting.
"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."
The Georgia Municipal Association was among those raising concerns, sending a letter to Deal arguing local governments couldn't afford to increase security in government buildings.
Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, pointed out that people tend to get heated during City Council meetings.
"The idea of barring guns at those government meetings is probably a good approach," Rotondo said.
There was never serious doubt that Deal would sign the measure into law. The powerful gun rights lobby had made the bill its top priority, and Deal doesn't want to give his two GOP primary challengers any opening. Even Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, his party's nominee for governor, voted for the bill. Echoing Deal, Carter told MSNBC this week that he believed he helped "make the bill better than it was when it first started."
Deal, for his part, tried to downplay the warnings from critics that the law could endanger police officers and lead to more violence.
"The important premise we all should remember is these are people who have their fingerprints taken, their backgrounds checked and they have been licensed to carry a weapon," Deal said. "It's not just someone walking out of the clear blue with none of those background checks. They've been subjected to scrutiny of the state."
As for guns in churches, Matt Evans, pastor of Rock Bridge Community Church in Dalton, said the church already has a security team that protects its buildings. He says pastors will consult with the security team before deciding what to do about the new law.
"The issue of people bringing guns to church is thankfully not something we have had a reason to be concerned about at Rock Bridge Community Church," Evans said.
Mary Pope, manager of the Chattanooga Street Tavern in LaFayette, said she is against allowing guns in the bar. Of course, bar owners can tell people with guns to leave and also can post signs in front of their buildings saying that guns are not welcome. But Pope does not know whether the bar will have a plan about this.
"With alcohol being served, it could become unsafe for the servers or workers or other patrons," she said.
Deal, in his remarks at the bill signing, argued that the measure 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.
In a separate statement Wednesday, Deal said about 500,000 Georgia citizens have licenses to carry weapons have passed background checks and are in good standing with the law. That's about 5 percent of the state's population.
Staff writer Tyler Jett, The Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this story.