Yesterday marked the first day Newton County residents could carry concealed weapons into restaurants. House Bill 257, which the Georgia General Assembly passed in April and Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law in May, took affected July 1.
The new law allows people who have a concealed weapons permit to carry registered handguns into restaurants and onto public transportation such, as MARTA and in state parks.
Covington Police Department firearms instructor Sgt. Avro Bowen teaches three public firearm safety courses a year, and he knows first hand the new law carries with it a certain level of personal responsibility.
"We teach the public about gun safety and the details of the gun laws," Bowen said. "People are amazed at the details they learn, especially with the laws. It's not the wild, wild west anymore."
According to Bowen, anyone carrying a concealed weapon should have some form of training with the weapon.
"On July 12, we will hold an all-day class that teaches about gun safety and educates citizens on gun laws," he said. "This month's class is already full, but I would encourage that you don't carry a gun unless you have some type of training."
Bowen added the training is critical for people to get past the fear of guns. According to Bowen, everyone who attends the class will get to fire weapons toward the end of the day.
Training aside, patrons who obtain concealed weapons permits can now carry firearms into restaurants. Although the law prohibits citizens who carry concealed weapons to consume alcohol, it doesn't mean they can't bring them into restaurants that serve alcohol.
Jim Stalvey Jr., owner of Jimbo's Grill at the Mill in Porterdale, said he doesn't foresee a problem with patrons carrying concealed weapons into his establishment, and is banking on the permit process to thoroughly sift through the applicants.
"It makes it an even playing field," Stalvey said, referring to defending against a possible criminal situation in restaurants. "It's a touchy situation on both sides, but from what I understand, anyone obtaining a permit will have to be clean and it's pretty tough."
Even though the law prohibits alcohol consumption, Stalvey admits policing residents who carry concealed weapons and drink, will be tough.
"I don't know how to police that," he said. "I can see where it may be a problem on that end. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out."
Short of checking in handguns at the door, restaurant owners are at the mercy of gun owners policing themselves. As it stands, there is no provision in the law that says citizens are required to divulge that they are carrying concealed weapons. The burden will ultimately fall on the gun owner.
"Hopefully, the screening process does its job and catches anyone who is not fit to carry a concealed weapon," Stalvey added.
Bowen doesn't believe there will be a problem pointing out that those applying for concealed permits are not the type of gun owners the public should fear.
"The sector of society we deal with are in the low percentage of carrying a concealed weapon permit," he said. "In my experience, those who commit those types of crimes usually don't hold any type of permit."
Taylor Crowley, civilian firearms and self-defense trainer and the owner of Cro-bar, a public safety supply store, said he didn't think there would be an influx of people applying for concealed carry permits.
"The only thing this changed, despite all the debate of what it's going to do, is that people who were already carrying guns into restaurants, now they breathe a sigh of relief," Crowley said.
However, a quick look at the number of concealed weapons permits issued so far in Newton County in 2008 suggests residents may be in the vanguard for the new law.
According to Newton County probate court supervisor Peggy Lassiter, the county received 1,055 applications in 2007. During the first six months of 2008, the court has already received 898. At that rate, the county could potentially issue twice as many concealed permits this year. Since 2004, Newton County has issued 5,450 permits.
As it stands, to obtain a concealed weapons permit in Newton County, residents must file an application at the clerk of probate office located in the Newton County Judicial Center on Usher Street in Covington. After paying a $15 fee, applicants are then sent to the Newton County Sherriff's Office on Alcovy Road where they are fingerprinted. The applicant pays another $24 fee and is sent for screening. The process usually takes one to two weeks
Gun laws have historically been a hot topic throughout the United States. While the public will undoubtedly have mixed opinions on whether the new law is appropriate, Bowen is a firm believer that educated and responsible gun owners are not a threat to society, rather they will aid in public safety.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," he said. "All in all it's going to be a good thing as long as citizens are responsible and we can keep handguns out of the hands of criminals."