ATLANTA (AP) — A judge declined on Tuesday to suspend a Georgia law that requires people to have a license to carry a handgun after a gun rights group raised concerns because licenses aren't being issued during the coronavirus emergency.
The same day that Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health state of emergency, the chief judge of the Georgia Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency and instructed courts statewide to "suspend all but essential court functions" to help stem the spread of the virus. Several days later, the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia issued a memo saying the issuance of weapons carry licenses would be temporarily suspended.
GeorgiaCarry.Org and Fulton County resident Sara Carter filed a federal lawsuit April 9 against Kemp and Fulton County Probate Judge Pinkie Toomer. The Fulton County Probate Court website says carry licenses aren't being processed because area police departments had indefinitely suspended fingerprinting for the licenses.
Georgia law says gun owners don't need a license to have weapons in their homes, cars and places of business. But if they want to take a loaded handgun elsewhere, they must have a carry license.
U.S. District Judge Steve Jones last week heard arguments on GeorgiaCarry.Org and Carter's emergency request to prohibit the enforcement of the state's carry law while it's not possible to obtain a carry license. In an order issued Monday, Jones declined to suspend the carry law.
"We are disappointed in the order and considering our options," plaintiffs' attorney John Monroe wrote in an email.
Monroe had argued during the hearing that the suspension put would-be license applicants between "the proverbial rock and a hard place." They must have a carry license to exercise their constitutional right to carry a gun, but it's impossible to get a carry license because probate judges have decided processing the applications is not an essential function, he said.
Jones found that a claim that Carter feared arrest and prosecution under the carry law while the state of emergency is in effect isn't reasonable, particularly because state law prohibits law enforcement officers from detaining someone solely to determine whether the person has a carry license.
Jones also rejected the argument that Carter's Second Amendment rights were being violated. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that protects the individual right to bear arms "did not define the extent to which the Second Amendment may protect individuals seeking to carry firearms outside the home and in public," he wrote.
Carter can carry a loaded handgun in her home, car or business, and state law also allows her to carry a loaded long gun openly and to carry an unloaded handgun in a case without a license. Because those options remain available, her rights have not been gutted, Jones wrote.
The judge also noted there's no indication that probate judges won't resume processing carry licenses "when the state of emergency is lifted, and it becomes safe to do so."
Finally, Jones wrote, suspending the state's carry law might mean that people who wouldn't qualify for a carry license would be able to legally carry a loaded handgun in public.