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Judge foresees big cost to Newton in weapons permit legislation
Commissioners vote to ask local legislators to oppose bill opening sales in county to non-residents
Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Judicial Center
The Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Judicial Center - photo by Courtesy of Newton County

COVINGTON, Ga. — Probate Judge Melanie Bell says she will need to increase her budget significantly if the Georgia General Assembly approves legislation allowing those outside Newton to obtain gun permits here without appointments.

The Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday, March 16, to ask legislators representing Newton to oppose House Bill 218 after Bell said she would need more staff and space to handle the anticipated demand from residents from larger metro counties traveling to Covington for weapons carry licenses.

State Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, is sponsoring the bill. It would expand WCL reciprocity to allow anyone already licensed to carry a weapon in another state to legally carry one in Georgia.

It also would allow applicants to travel to any county for a WCL through Dec. 31, 2022 — just as already allowed for marriage licenses and such vital records as birth and death certificates, Bell said.

“Outlier counties like ours have people travel to us because it's easier than dealing with Fulton, DeKalb and their metro counterparts,” Bell said. 

“We already turn people away every day from other counties that want to get their WCL here due to the ease of our operation,” she said. “If this law passes we cannot refuse that request.”

Bell said she does not oppose the bill for political reasons but for the "practicality" of it for her office. 

The Probate Court staff already is stressed because it processes 130 WCLs every week compared to 70 applications per week before March 2020, Bell said.

Newton County Probate Court saw weapons carry licenses (WCLs) applications — now limited to Newton residents only — increase by 37% from an average of 3,500 to last year’s total of 4,800, Bell said. 

She said this year’s applications are on a similar pace after 1,000 were filed between Jan. 1 and March 10.

HB 218 would require her to increase her staffing and require additional space — either by using the current courtroom or find space outside the Judge Horace Johnson Jr. Judicial Building, Bell said.

“These changes will result in a need for ($150,000 to $200,000) more in my budget as soon as the governor signs the legislation,” Bell wrote in an email to county commissioners. “That does not include any calculations about the space that would be needed.”

Commissioner Stan Edwards said he is a firearms enthusiast but did not understand why state lawmakers would increase Newton’s costs so larger counties’ residents could access the service more easily in a smaller county.

“I don’t see how our legislators can put this on us and increase the taxes on our citizens because other counties simply can’t handle, or don’t want to handle, their load,” Edwards said.

However, Newton resident Dana Labit told commissioners the bill also called for online and mail-in applications.

He said he opposed the commission’s action because it was a step toward limiting access to legal gun ownership.

“This is a soft step toward taking away our Second Amendment rights,” Labit said.

Ballinger did not return a call for comment.

Bell said since May 2020 probate courts statewide have been processing WCLs by appointment only because of lack of sufficient space for applicants to observe socially distancing requirements.

House Bill 218 would require probate courts in Georgia to process WCLs 

on a first-come, first-serve basis on the same day, Bell said.  

“We cannot require an appointment and could face as many as 100 applicants in a day,” the judge said.  

“If we do not process all 100 of those, the legislation says they can sue the judge (or) county for that reason alone,” she said. “There is not even protection for the courts (or) counties if there is a pandemic, natural disaster, or any other emergency.”

The Newton County Probate Court hears cases involving such issues as disputes over estates, in addition to issuing WCLs. It also serves as the county’s Magistrate Court.

Bell said the legislation will force “my staff and I, who should be focusing on the hundreds of probate cases and thousands of traffic cases we handle a year (to) drop everything at all times to process a WCL for someone who doesn't even live in our county.”  

Bell said it would require her to add between two and five additional clerks and more fingerprinting equipment.

And though the bill eases the requirements for online applications, the applicant still must go to the office to be fingerprinted, Bell said. 

She said applicants formerly could show up anytime during the business day to obtain a WCL before Newton County Probate Court shut down temporarily in March 2020 because of COVID-19.

The licensing process includes staff members taking license holders’ photos and fingerprinting them — which is a task the Newton County Probate Court does rather than requiring the applicant to travel to the Sheriff’s Office, Bell said.

However, probate courts in Georgia did not issue the licenses from March 15 to May 13 in 2020, she said.

Despite the delay, she said her office saw WCL applications from Newton Countians increase by 37%. 

She said she had planned no significant funding increases or additional personnel in her office’s 2022 budget based on current conditions.