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PDF: Georgia guns

THE STORY SO FAR

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Legislature passed laws allowing guns in public parks and restaurants that serve alcohol. In November, Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled the so-called guns-in-bars law was "unconstitutionally vague" and firearms were once again banned from establishments serving booze. The guns in parks bill remained, although local municipalities and counties could opt out, something that Chattanooga, Hamilton County and several other local municipalities chose to do.

A nationwide review by The Associated Press found 24 states, mostly in the South and West, have passed 47 new laws loosening gun restrictions in the last two years.

ON THE WEB

Read House Bill 615: http://www.legis.ga.gov

By Greg Bluestein, Associated Press

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers could consider vast changes to the state's firearm laws, including a push to allow gun owners with permits to carry their concealed weapons at a range of new areas, from churches to school zones to college campuses.

A flurry of gun-related proposals could be on the docket during next year's legislative session, including a sweeping overhaul that would allow the estimated 300,000 Georgians with gun permits to carry their weapons to more public gatherings.

Gun rights advocates are also trying to breathe new life into a proposal that would allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons in parts of Georgia's airports and give them more leeway to have their weapons on Atlanta's mass transit system.

They will face stiff opposition from opponents who argue that tinkering with gun laws could lead to more violence. And supporters will have to fight for attention from legislative leaders who will likely focus on balancing the budget, promoting economic development and waging a war on traffic.

Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, said potential bills have probably gained steam after Tennessee past legislation allowing guns in public parks last year.

The Catoosa County law maker said he would take a "strong hard look at these laws," but he strongly supports the second amendment. He said licensed, law abiding citizens should have wide-ranging freedoms to carry their weapons, but "prudence and discretion" was needed when it comes to bars or other areas.

"There are some areas that are more sensitive," Rep. Weldon said.

Mixing guns and alcohol is also a concern for Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton. He said allowing guns in bars would be "the area where he would have the most concern." He said he would likely support some rights to carry in parks, school zones and other public areas.

"It always seems that the criminals have the guns and the law abiding citizens don't have the protection," Sen. Thomas said.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who said in the run-up to the last session he has "no appetite" for loosening the state's concealed weapons laws, said balancing the budget and providing more jobs are again at the top of his agenda for next year.

Incoming House Speaker David Ralston also said that while he's a strong supporter of gun rights, adopting a solid state spending plan will take priority.

"I'm not sure that this is a pressing issue right now," he said of overhauling gun restrictions.

Still, gun rights advocates plan a spirited push to build on a 2008 measure that allowed those with permits to carry firearms in state parks, restaurants that serve alcohol and mass transit. And they hope to reword parts of the state law after two decisions by federal judges struck a blow to their cause.

The first legal feud involved whether the new rules applied to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest. City officials quickly declared the airport a "gun-free zone" after the law took effect and warned that anyone carrying a gun there would be arrested.

Gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org sued the city and the airport, saying it qualifies as public transportation under the new law. But a federal judge disagreed and dismissed the lawsuit, and a federal appeals panel upheld that decision a few months later.

The firearms lobby was dealt another setback in December when a federal judge ruled that Atlanta's mass transit system had the authority to stop and question a Georgia man who was seen carrying a gun at a train station. The gun owner had argued the 2008 law allowed him to do so.

Both rulings infuriated gun advocates, who said they would seek to specifically spell out that "public transportation" extends to both airports and train stations.

"The state law is very clear and for some reason we have some legislating from the bench," said state Rep. Tim Bearden, a Villa Rica Republican who sponsored the gun law. "It's all laid out in the legislation."

The proposals also seek to go further, including eliminating a restriction that bans gun owners with permits from carrying at public gatherings. That ban now extends to bars, sporting events, political rallies and churches.

It's being pitched as a way to bring clarity to Georgia's often confusing gun laws with a list of places where gun owners cannot bring their weapons. The draft proposal's list of such places is short: Jails, prisons and courthouses.

"There's a definite need in the state of Georgia to clarify that law," said state Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, the chamber's majority whip. "When I talk to law enforcement officers who aren't necessarily clear on how to enforce it, that means to me we need a clearer law."

Critics, meanwhile, said they worry it could give rise to vigilante justice and jeopardize the public's safety. Alice Johnson of Georgians for Gun Safety said she was particularly concerned that the proposal would allow permitted gun owners to carry their weapons at college campuses and school zones.

"It's an accident waiting to happen," said Johnson. "The idea that we somehow don't have to use law enforcement as the reliable source of public safety and that everybody could just pack heat themselves is not foolproof. These people are not qualified to protect the public safety."

Staff writer Andy Johns and Associated Press Writer Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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