A controversial new set of gun laws is receiving local cheers and jeers for expanding the right to carry firearms in such places as churches, bars and government buildings. The "Safe Carry Protection Act," nicknamed the "guns everywhere" bill by its opponents, takes effect July 1 and may force expensive security upgrades for local government meetings.
Jerry Henry, head of the gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org, celebrated the new laws with about 30 supporters at a May 2 lunch in Conyers. He also appeared on the Conyers-based Just 4 Fun Radio.
But county and city officials are cautiously examining the ways they may have to respond to the laws. Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas, in a News interview, blasted some of the changes as creating a "Wild West" atmosphere.
"The extent of [the new gun laws] is crazy," said Lucas, who himself is a "card-toting NRA member" with a concealed-carry permit.
Henry told the News that he doesn't expect the laws to make places like Rockdale much safer. He said the point of the sweeping changes-which cover everything from hunting with silenced guns to firearm sales during state emergencies-is to make gun laws easier to understand and obey.
"It's only going to allow you to carry in a few more places. I don't know how much safer it will be, but it may lead people to carry [more]," Henry said.
He said people with valid weapon-carrying permits should be able to understand where they can carry "without having to hire an attorney and without having to go to law school to read the code."
Local officials told the News that the implications of the law aren't so simple to them.
Tony Lucas, who is the city's former police chief, said he and current Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson are mostly concerned about two new laws. One allows the carrying of guns in government buildings that don't have security screening performed by sworn peace officers. That includes any building during the time a government body holds a meeting inside it. Conyers City Council meetings and Rockdale County Assembly Hall are among the places that currently don't have such screenings.
Lucas noted that government meetings often involve disagreements and "passion." He recalled a water rate meeting in recent years where there were a few fistfights.
"Now you want to throw guns in on top of it?" Lucas said. "I don't think there's a place in that type of environment to be strapped and carrying a weapon."
Henry of GeorgiaCarry.org said he knows that law will get a reaction. "But my question is, why? There's absolutely nothing to prevent someone from carrying a weapon in there today...Right now, they'll allow any criminal [with a gun] to walk in there."
Concern about the law "tells me your local government doesn't trust law-abiding citizens," Henry said.
Lucas acknowledged that people could be carrying guns in local meetings already, but added that the new law will promote and encourage it.
"You wait and see. Come July 1, you're going to see those public challenges all over the state from those who just want to test the waters," he said. "Everybody's going to be armed. It's going to be the Wild West, I suppose."
"It almost places government in that position where you have to expend government money for security," Lucas said, adding that city staff will consult with City Council about possible measures such as metal detectors, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Commission Chairman Richard Oden voiced his concerns in the middle of a National Day of Prayer ecumenical service at Rockdale Baptist while he was giving a few closing words. "I'm very concerned about that bill," said Oden. "My office, the water department, we get a lot of irate customers that storm over the Board of Commissioners office and fuss. The Tax Commissioner gets a lot of irate customers because of his hours maybe. And then there's a Tax Assessor who evaluates homes and properties and he gets irate customers. The planning and development department, where licensing and permitting takes place. All these employees are children of God (and) are at high risk because we never know what's going to happen. We have no security systems in our buildings."
"The County is in the middle of internally discussing the legislation to better understand its application in relation to local existing law, to consider best next steps and to weigh its potential impact to all citizens and county staff, ranging from cost to screening techniques," said Rockdale County spokeswoman Tonya Parker in an email.
Another concern for Conyers, Lucas said, is a new ban on police officers stopping someone solely to ask to see their weapons carrying permit, without some larger criminal investigation.
Henry said that's simply a matter of constitutional rights. He said many courts have ruled that mere gun possession does not give police probable cause to stop and search someone. This law codifies that position.
But Lucas called it an "absurdity" that officials can ask to see a driver's license or voter ID, but not a weapon permit.
"You can come strapped with the biggest gun on your hip, and a peace officer can't say, ‘Can I see your permit?'" Lucas said. "Even bad guys, a convicted felon, can be strapped, because you can't ask them."
"It's put law enforcement in a heck of a trick box. They really tied the hands of law enforcement," Lucas added.
Henry said GeoriaCarry.org already has been asked to train various local police agencies on the new law and is available to do so in Rockdale.
Rockdale County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Scott Freeman said the RCSO was forming a training program on the ins and outs of the new law, "to make sure the deputies are aware of what they can and can't do." He said he did not see the law requiring more resources for law enforcement other than training. "Does it pose certain obstacles to us during an investigation? It could pose some limitations," said Freeman.
"This law will bring new obstacles to law enforcement [and] also establish requirements for business owners as well," said Kim Lucas, the public information officer at the Conyers Police Department, adding that officers will receive training on the law as well.
HB60 also allows school boards to allow school personnel they designate to carry firearms into a school zone.
Rockdale County Public Schools Superintendent Richard Autry made his position very clear during Thursday's school board work session.
"I do not believe in our education personnel carrying weapons," said Autry. "I want to leave that to those that are trained to do so. I want to make our stance very clear - that is not something we would recommend."
The RCPS policy already allows persons with a carry permit to have their firearms locked in a compartment in their vehicle, said Autry. Other than School Resource Officers, which are provided by the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office and Conyers Police Department, he did not foresee other personnel being recommended to carry firearms.
Michelle Kim contributed to this article.