Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, right, and her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, are shown at a ceremony awarding Giffords the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award at the JFK Library in 2013. The couple have form a gun-control group and are urging Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto a bill greatly expanding gun rights in the state.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
There is a battle boiling in Georgia. One side has politicians and well-crafted arguments. The other side has politicians, well-crafted arguments and guns.
Lawmakers passed the Safe Carry Protection Act two weeks ago, and now Gov. Nathan Deal, a strong gun-rights supporter, will decide whether to sign the bill into law, let it become law without his signature or veto it.
If the sweeping, 29-page bill does become law, Peach State gun owners will have more places where they can legally bring their weapons. They won't get arrested for carrying guns into bars (though bar owners still can kick them out). School boards will be able to decide whether to let teachers bring guns to class. And gun owners will be able to stay strapped when visiting a government building, assuming that building doesn't have armed security guards.
Plenty of critics call the Safe Carry Protection Act the "guns everywhere bill," and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona is among those dissenting voices. In January 2011, Giffords was at a rally with constituents in Tucson, Ariz., when a man opened fire.
The shooter killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. Giffords survived, but her former life ended. She slipped into a coma. She lost 50 percent of her vision in both eyes. She awoke and recovered, but she had to learn how to walk again, how to talk again.
A year after the shooting, Giffords left Congress. But she and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, formed a group aimed at creating more restrictions to guns: Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Now Giffords, Kelly and group members are asking Deal to veto the bill. Leaders of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association also have spoken out against the Safe Carry Protection Act.
On Monday, Giffords and Kelly sent group members an email telling them to continue voicing opposition to the bill. They've called Deal's and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's offices. They've emailed them and signed petitions, too.
The group noted that, after gun control groups objected, Georgia lawmakers removed a part of the bill that would let people bring guns onto college campuses. They also softened a section that would have allowed gun owners to bring their weapons to church. Now, church leaders can form their own rules.
"We're making progress," Giffords and Kelly's email read Monday, "but we're not done. This bill puts Georgia families at risk."
In all, Deal's and Cagle's staffs have received 2,200 calls protesting the bill. Deal also has received 1,800 emails, though it's difficult to know how many of those people are from Americans for Responsible Solutions. A member of Cagle's office said he thinks there have been about as many calls supporting the bill as protesting it.
Deal does not comment on pending legislation. However, his record indicates support for expanded gun rights. During his 2010 campaign, the National Rifle Association endorsed Deal and gave him an "A rating" for his pro-gun voting record.
Deal faces re-election in November.
But even if the governor touts a strong pro-gun history, Giffords' group wants to continue to push, continue to force more people to think about this law, and others that may follow. Pia Carusone, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, has called the legislation "the most extreme gun bill in America."
While that statement is difficult to quantify, evidence suggests Georgia's gun laws still are not the most relaxed in the country. Four states -- Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming -- don't require a permit to carry a concealed weapon, unlike Georgia.
Giffords' group objects specifically to what they describe as an irresponsible expansion of Georgia's self-defense and "Stand Your Ground" laws. However, gun rights experts say this is a misleading description of the Safe Carry Protection Act.
The bill changes a part of the law that deals with immunity from prosecution. If someone kills another person and claims self-defense, the killer can apply for immunity. Right now, people who kill someone while committing another crime -- convicted felons who have guns, shooters who are drunk or high, people who brought guns to restricted places -- cannot apply for this immunity under self-defense and "Stand Your Ground" laws.
If Deal signs the Safe Carry Protection Act into law, that will change.
John Monroe, an attorney for the gun rights group Georgia Carry, points out that a killer won't necessarily get immunity just because he applies for it. Judges still can choose to let prosecutors bring those cases before a jury.
The Safe Carry Protection Act also does not change the fact that convicted felons and others who legally may not have guns can shield themselves with the self-defense and "Stand Your Ground" laws.
That doesn't mean a convicted felon who kills someone in self-defense couldn't face charges for illegally possessing a gun, Monroe said.
In Tennessee, by comparison, a citizen cannot claim self-defense if he or she kills someone while doing something else illegal.
Giffords' group also opposes a provision that will allow people who have been convicted of pointing a gun at someone else to get a concealed weapons license. Georgia Carry Executive Director Jerry Henry said that, if those people had actually scared someone with that gun, they would have been charged with aggravated assault -- a felony that keeps weapons licenses out of your hands.
So, Henry said, these aren't dangerous people.
"Pointing a pistol at someone is a crime that has no fear element," he said in an email. "If the pointing of the pistol produces no fear, it likewise cannot be accompanied by intimidation and is an ineffective threat."
The Americans for Responsible Solutions also opposes a part of the bill that allows weapons carry permit holders to retreat if they get caught with a gun in an airport security checkpoint. Right now, someone who brings a firearm into the Transportation Security Administration section of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport can be arrested and charged with a felony.
Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, one of the bill's sponsors, said the current law unfairly gives legal gun owners trouble. If Deal signs the bill, those gun owners can go find another, legal place to store the weapon after the TSA finds it.
They won't face a criminal charge unless they refuse to leave. People caught with guns who don't have carry permits will also face criminal charges. This new law will differ from that of Tennessee, where gun owners are forbidden from carrying their weapons into an airport.
Other groups are protesting this bill, too.
Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, opposes the bill because of the provision allowing people to carry guns into government buildings that aren't guarded by law enforcement. He said police departments will respond by pulling officers off patrols and placing them in city council meetings and other government functions.
Rotondo also opposes a part of the bill that allows school boards to decide whether to let teachers and administrators bring guns to work. The bill does not demand strict enough training for those armed school employees, Rotondo said.
The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes provisions dealing with fingerprinting and weapons carry licenses. If the bill becomes law, gun owners seeking a weapons carry license renewal will no longer have to be fingerprinted, which Rotondo said can let a wanted man keep his license active.
And, with the new law, police officers can no longer demand to see a gun owner's carry license unless they have "probable cause" that the gun owner has committed a crime.
"Why should anybody apply for a license if an officer can't say, 'I'd like to see your permit?'" Rotondo asked. "Law enforcement can't challenge you."
Henry said demanding to see a carry license without probable cause is unconstitutional. He said this provision of the bill merely protects gun owners from getting harassed.
Overall, he said, the opposition to this bill is not about gun safety but about political power by people like Giffords and Michael Bloomberg, the retired New York City mayor and co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Henry pointed to an email sent by Giffords before Georgia lawmakers passed the Safe Carry Protection Act.
"If we can stop the gun lobby in a state like Georgia," the email began, "we can stop the gun lobby anywhere."
Said Henry: "Michael Bloomberg is out of a job. He has millions of dollars. He wants to get gun control on all of the states. ... It's power: 'I got more money than you. I got more power. I can control you.'"
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.