Gov. Nathan Deal signed an expansive gun bill into law two weeks ago, bringing it into the national spotlight and renewing a polarizing debate among proponents, critics and those trying to figure out how it affects them.
The Safe Carry Protection Act (House Bill 60) was signed by Gov. Deal on April 23 and addresses the right for licensed gun and firearms carriers to bring their registered guns and other included weapons into certain government buildings, schools, churches, bars and parts of airports, among other additions and changes to make it a comprehensive firearms bill.
While many pro-gun advocates applaud the bill for expanding and clarifying existing rights, one concern for local governments is the prospect of facing additional costs if they want to keep guns out of government buildings.
“It puts everyone on an equal footing,” said Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper), who wrote much of the bill, which was first introduced in 2013.
The bill, which passed with an 112-58 vote in the House on the evening of March 20, its last day of the 2014 legislative session, and with a 37-18 vote in the Senate two days earlier, takes effect July 1.
Rep. Jasperse said it only addresses rules for a valid firearms license holder because “the people who break the rules could care less about the rules.”
With this bill, people with a valid firearms license are allowed to enter any government building, unless the building is restricted or has a security screening device. If the building is screened by security or restricted and a person with a valid license attempts to enter, he or she must be given the chance to leave before further action is taken. A city may implement temporary security screening during a public meeting.
Prior to HB 60’s passage, each jurisdiction was able to decide whether to allow firearms in municipal buildings, according to Georgia Municipal Association spokesperson Amy Henderson.
A police officer cannot stop a person who clearly has a gun or weapon solely to check for a license; to do so, the person must have created a reasonable suspicion that another law has been violated.
Rep. Jasperse said this clause already essentially existed in the Fourth Amendment and that law enforcement authorities have never been able to detain a person simply to check for a firearms license. HB 60 created added protection for those who follow the rules, he said.
The bill stipulates this rule with the consequence that any aggrieved person can file a lawsuit against the city if he or she feels the city violated firearms or weapons regulations under state law and his or her legal right to carry a firearm with a valid license.
“I’m not scared of people who went through the trouble to get licensed,” Rep. Jasperse said. “The bad guys will carry in there anyway.”
GMA opposed HB 60, citing increased risks of litigation against a city and unnecessary costs to a city and taxpayers.
“GMA doesn’t take a position of either pro-gun or anti-gun,” Henderson said. “Our argument is more the cost to the city.
“Our preference would have been for cities to make the decision at the local level.”
If a city does not want guns in government buildings, it will have to install security screening devices if there are none already in place. If someone files a lawsuit against the city, taxpayers pay for the lawsuit, regardless of who wins or loses, which is a provision both GMA and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) opposed.
As county officials prepare for next year’s budget, the effects of the gun bill have been bandied about informally a few times, but most officials are still trying to gather more information before making any formal decisions.0
Chairman Keith Ellis said commissioners have yet to discuss as a group whether to set up and pay for measures to prevent guns from entering the county’s two most prominent buildings, the Newton County Administration Building – where people pay taxes, conduct early voting and address zoning issues, among other things – and the Historic Courthouse.
“I’ve talked to a couple of other counties’ chairmen. Basically, there seems to be an evaluation period going on to try to figure out what would be the repercussions of banning guns from public buildings,” Ellis said. “Obliviously, the Georgia General Assembly and the governor though it best for those buildings to be accessible to those carrying a weapon if they had the correct permit, so it’s not a done deal we’ll do anything.”
Ellis spoke with Capt. Doug Kitchens, who handles security for the Newton County Judicial Center – which already has metal detectors and security and won’t be affected by the law – and said the basic estimate is about $21,000 to install a metal detector at each entrance. The administration building and Historic Courthouse each have one main entrance, but each also has a separate handicap-accessible entrance.
The detectors alone would cost $84,000 total.
In addition, each building is staffed by only one sheriff’s office deputy, and adding extra security checks could cost another deputy, Ellis said, which would probably entail a salary of around $40,000 plus benefits.
“We’ll look at our options and discuss the financial impact,” Ellis said.
checks could cost another deputy, Ellis said, which would probably entail a salary of around $40,000 plus benefits.
“We’ll look at our options and discuss the financial impact,” Ellis said.
What will our cities do?
City officials’ reactions to the “guns everywhere bill” – the nickname dubbed by opponents – throughout Newton County represent both sides of the spectrum, too.
Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry said one $4,000 walk-through screening device, paid for by the police department’s budget, will be installed in Oxford City Hall. A decision had already been made to purchase a security device for the city’s municipal court hearings, which are held in City Hall, to move away from the more intrusive method of using a police officer and wand to conduct checks, Roseberry said.
The walk through device will be used for all court appearances, he said, and will probably be installed for council meetings, too.
“It’s a little expense the city is going to have to spend because of the law,” Roseberry said. “It depends on your point of view as to whether that’s good or bad. I’m not opposed to your right to bear arms. I just think we should be careful as to the type of weapons and where you can carry.”
Roseberry said he supports citizens’ individual rights, but those rights need to be adhered to safely and with common sense.
“In public meetings, where debates can get heated, you don’t really need weapons in those facilities,” Roseberry said.
He said the only inconvenience to the public is they will only be able to enter the building through the main lobby, which is where the device will be installed.
Newborn Mayor Gregg Ellwanger said such a small amount of people come in and out of the town hall that there is no need to install security devices beyond what is already in place just to adhere to the bill.
“I don’t really think it will be a real issue at this point,” Ellwanger said.
He also said he wishes the state would focus on making “laws that make more sense” instead of focusing so heavily on gun rights.
Jefferson Riley, Mansfield interim mayor, said the “Mansfield City Council has had no discussion on the topic yet, and I don’t know if we intend to.”
City buildings in Mansfield do not have security, Riley said, but they were already planning to install cameras.
“I’m in favor of Gov. Deal’s law,” Riley said, “and I respect and honor Gov. Deal for making such a bold move. I personally feel like the citizens of the state of Georgia will actually be safer if more people are carrying a gun.”
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said the city is talking about the options, but there have been no decision made yet.
Mayor Hal Dally said Social Circle council members and he need to discuss the topic at the next work session to decide “what are the effects and what should be done.”
In Porterdale, Mayor Arline Chapman said there is a security check for municipal court.
“There have been no safety concerns so far, but if it needs to be brought up it will be,” Chapman said.
The rules in school
Under current law, a school administrator is allowed to designate school personnel to carry firearms at schools, to define required training, to set rules on how firearms must be stores while on school grounds and to determine types of weapons allowed.
H.B. 60 narrows the scope of who can make that designation to only the school board.
“This just strengthened it and improved it,” Rep. Jasperse said. “The law today already allows it.”
Schools and schools boards will not be required to disclose where weapons are stored or who is designated to carry them.
“Any changes in our current practice would require school board action,” said Newton County School System Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey in an emailed statement. “We are waiting for additional policy guidance from the Georgia School Boards Association to ensure we have accurate interpretations of the law(s) prior to the development of any related policies or amendment of current policy.”
Law Enforcement's take
Both Covington Police and Newton County Sheriff’s Office officials were concerned by the law’s provision that prevents law enforcement officers from asking a gun carrier whether he or she has a valid license.
Sheriff Ezell Brown took a particularly strong stance against that language, arguing it negates part of the benefit of having a license.
“If an officer cannot stop and investigate a person carrying a weapon on his or her person to establish whether they hold a valid weapon carrying license, then the very policy direction dictated by law makers to have such license boils down to a moot issue,” Brown said in an email. “Furthermore, the inability of officers to check licenses places them in a potential state of confusion, including concerns for personal and public safety when encountering an armed individual in the performance of one’s duty.”
Brown said he will work with the Board of Commissioners as they have their discussions about what to do about security in public buildings. However, he worried about the effect in other public areas.
“This bill will potentially provide a green light for the increased presence of the (guns held by) untrained and unlicensed individuals, felons and individuals suffering with mental illness in our neighborhoods. It can also increase the number of victims in the most vulnerable places in our community, i.e., parks, churches, bars, public buildings and work places. All of these factors significantly impact the work of law enforcement.”
Lt. Paul Dailey, with the Covington Police Department (CPD), said the CPD has reached out to the Newton County District Attorney’s office to get a legal opinion about how their rights to approach gun-carrying citizens will change.
“Our major question is: What are our rights as police officers when we see somebody carrying a weapon, be it concealed or not?” Dailey said. “What are our rights to approach that person to see if they have a gun-carrying permit? The way we interpret it now, we don’t have that right, but we want clarification on that.”
Dailey said officials know they still have the right to question somebody as long as they have reasonable suspicion that person may be violating the law in some other way.
“If a person is doing something that we deem suspicious, we still think the color of the law will cover us to ask someone if they have a carrying permit,” Dailey said. “But if we just see somebody walking around Walmart with a gun stuck in the back of his pants, the way the law reads, we can’t ask them.”
Dailey said officers want to make sure they’re not violating anybody’s right, but they also want to protect citizens.
Judges' carrying rights
Currently, retired judges do not have to follow restrictions on carrying firearms in certain gun-free zones, such as courtrooms, as long as they are under state retirement. H.B. 60 removes the requirement that they must be under state retirement, now allowing any judge, current or retired, who has a valid carrying license, to bring a firearm into municipal courts and government buildings.
This part of the bill was authored by local Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle). Even though the rest of the provisions of the 29-page bill were added by Jasperse, Holt’s name still appears as the official sponsor of the bill.
Public housing and other rules
When HB 60 takes effect in July, people with valid licenses will be allowed to carry a firearm into public housing.
It also lifts prohibitions on people convicted of pointing a firearm at another person to obtain a carrying license.