Gun-carry confusion in Georgia

photo LaWanda Burris, left, and Denny Rayes fire handguns at Shooter's Depot in Ringgold, Ga. Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

GUN LAW CHANGES• Concealed-carry permit holders can carry weapons openly in holsters.• Guns now are allowed in parks, historic sites, recreational centers, restaurants, except where prohibited by federal law• Not allowed in:- Bars, unless the owner permits it- Places of worship, unless the church body votes on it- Courthouses- Government buildingsSource: Senate Bill 308

Walking into Los Guerreros restaurant off Main Street in LaFayette, Ga., to grab some food on his day off recently, Denny Rayes stiffened when he saw that the man in front of him had a gun strapped to his side.

"It made me think, 'I wish I was wearing mine,'" said Rayes, a LaFayette police officer and resident.

For nearly a year it has been legal for people with concealed-carry permits to wear their weapons in plain sight as long as they are holstered.

But it still jars many Georgia residents to see nonuniformed residents openly wearing holstered weapons. Local police say they have received numerous panicked calls from clerks and restaurant employees upset about customers openly packing.

"It's nothing illegal that people are doing, but people just get freaked out," said LaFayette police Sgt. Stacey Meeks.

The bill signed into law last year also redefined where guns can be taken, including into restaurants serving alcohol.

LaWanda Burris carries her 9 mm Glock or .380-caliber pistol on her person or inside her purse, but she said she wouldn't wear it openly because it draws too much attention.

"To me that's asking for trouble," said Burris, a LaFayette resident.

Meeks agreed.

If a threatening situation did come up, someone carrying a gun openly would be in danger, he said. That's one of the reasons he warns patrol officers always to carry a sidearm when wearing clothes that identify them as police.

"If someone is going to commit a crime, you become their first target," Meeks said.

Carl Hamilton has a different view.

The LaFayette resident wears his weapon openly and said a sidearm in plain sight might deter crime.

Hamilton said he has been criticized or questioned occasionally when he walks into a restaurant or Walmart with his gun strapped to his side. But he said he tells people he could react quickly if trouble arose.

"I'm not wearing to intimidate anybody or impress nobody," he said. "I've got the right and the permit to say I can carry it."

While the new law was intended to clear up ambiguity in Georgia's gun laws, some questions persist.

Walker County Associated Probate Judge Kristy Anderson had to check after she was peppered with questions about how guns may be carried.

If the weapon is kept in a holster it's legal, she said, but even "that's questionable in the law."

Other points of argument include where people can take guns.

For instance, guns are allowed in church services only if the church body votes to allow them, said Catoosa County Probate Judge Gene Lowery.

But in any case, business owners and church leaders have the right to tell people to leave their weapons in the car, authorities say.

Several months after the changed law took effect, Christy Dycus was working behind the counter at Richard's Restaurant in Ringgold, Ga., when a man with a gun strapped to his side walked in to pick up a to-go order.

A customer flinched and stared as the man waited for his order, Dycus said. A couple of minutes later, police showed up and checked the man's permit, she said, assuming the customer had called authorities.

"It was fine. It was just weird to have him have a weapon on his side," she said.

When police arrived, they asked the man to keep his gun in his vehicle, said Police Chief Dan Bilbrey.

"It was just making people uneasy," he said. "I can certainly understand someone in ... a T-shirt with a gun strapped to their side - it gets your attention."

Authorities said legislation passes every year that tweaks or drastically changes gun laws.

And every year it takes "time for people to get used to" the changes, Meeks said.