Georgia lawmakers wisely chose to wait to approve one piece of legislation in the recently completed session.
The Republican-led General Assembly was set to approve a bill to allow Georgia to recognize weapons-carry permits for gun owners living in other states.
House Bill 218, sponsored by State Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, would have allowed those licensed to carry weapons in other states to bring guns legally into Georgia and have their concealed-carry permits recognized.
It would also let Georgia probate judges create online application portals for weapons-carry license requests and renewals, as well as prohibit state officials from halting weapons and ammunition sales during officially declared emergencies.
Because of its timing so soon after mass shootings in Metro Atlanta and Colorado, House Speaker David Ralston said he felt it was better to delay its passage.
But there also was a part of the bill that did not exactly have Newton County’s probate judge singing its praises.
Currently, residents of any Georgia county could travel to Newton to get a wedding license or vital records such as birth or death certificates — but not weapons-carry permits.
HB 218 would have knocked down any barriers between counties for residents wanting to legally tote guns in Georgia.
Judge Bell estimated she would need a $200,000 increase in the Court’s operating budget as soon as the governor signs the legislation.
That does not include the money needed for the additional space to serve the extra traffic that is not available in the Judge Horace Johnson Jr. Judicial Center, Bell wrote in an email to county commissioners.
It would require her office to add between two and five additional clerks and more fingerprinting equipment to accommodate those who don’t want to deal with long lines in Fulton or DeKalb.
The Probate Court staff already is stressed from processing 130 weapons-carry licenses every week — almost double the amount it was issuing per week before March 2020.
Last year’s total of 4,800 applications was a 37% increase from the 3,500 that Newton County Probate Court saw in 2019. With 1,000 filed through the first 70 days of 2021, her office is on a similar pace — from Newton Countians alone.
The county’s location on I-20 gives DeKalb and Fulton residents relatively easy access to downtown Covington.
Outlier counties like Newton would see people travel here because it’s easier than dealing with Fulton, DeKalb and their metro counterparts, Bell said.
Gun owners from DeKalb, Fulton or Gwinnett possibly may drop some money into the cash registers of restaurants or retailers while they’re here.
But whatever small amount of sales tax we’d likely get from out-of-towners would be more than offset by the money our Probate Court would need to add more staff and equipment and possibly find space in another building to accommodate the increased traffic.
People confounded by the long lines they likely would see in DeKalb or Gwinnett could take a short ride to Covington to enjoy our relatively more plentiful free parking — leading to long lines at the probate office in downtown Covington for purchase of weapons-carry permits.
Probate courts statewide also have been processing license applications so applicants can observe social distancing requirements.
However, Newton’s Probate Court could see 100 applicants per day and the legislation requires they be served the same day or face lawsuits — even if another pandemic strikes.
The Probate Court now requires those from Newton County wanting a permit to make an appointment and observe social distancing rules.
Bell said the bill — which is still alive and awaiting action in the 2022 session — would require approval on the same day.
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 — forcing the court staff to “drop everything at all times to process a (weapons-carry license) for someone who doesn’t even live in our county.”
And though the bill eases the requirements for online applications, the applicant still must go to the office to be fingerprinted, Bell said.
If this legislation has the support it needs — and it appears it does — a delay until 2022 at least gives Newton County’s leadership time to prepare its Probate Court for what likely will be a lot of new visitors.
Tom Spigolon is news editor of The Covington News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.