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Amid recurrent gun violence, Georgia hasn’t tightened gun laws in decades | News

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ATLANTA — While mass shootings and gun violence continue to plague the country and spark debate over gun laws, Georgia and Alabama are among several states that have not or are likely not to impose firearm restrictions at the state level. 

As early as 1837, Georgia passed a law banning handguns, which was later ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court — one of the first overturned based on the Second Amendment.

Aside from nationally imposed gun laws, at the state level, the two states have had few restrictions on guns. Dating to 1833, restrictions were imposed on Black people owning guns in Georgia: “The free person of colour, so detected in owning, using, or carrying firearms, shall receive upon his bare back, thirty-nine lashes.” The same law had been imposed in Alabama in 1866 and other states in the South.

“I know much has been written about kind of a connection to making sure slaves don’t get guns,” said Fredrick Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama who has written journals and books about gun control and violence. “It was a big push for regulation in the South, and part of the Fourteenth Amendment was to change that and to give everybody sort of equal rights and equal ability to kind of protect themselves. So there’s a positive story right behind gun rights.”

Vars opined that there’s been an evolution in the intent of the Second Amendment. 

“I think historically the court — until the (Supreme Court’s 2018) Heller decision — said that the Second Amendment was not intended (to) include an individual right to bear arms apart from militia service … to make sure the federal government didn’t get in the way of states having armed militia groups, state-controlled genuine militia groups.” 

On June 23, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s restrictions on carrying concealed handguns outside the home, stating that the law violated a person’s right to “keep and bear arms” under the Second Amendment.

“I think we are getting maybe farther away from the original intent, as I understand it, but then again I’m not a historian,” Vars said in response to that ruling. 

Recent Georgia laws have lessened gun restrictions

During the last four decades, Georgia has loosened laws related to gun control, despite Democrats’ efforts to push laws they say would help curtail gun violence or incidents. 

Most recently, the Georgia “stand your ground” law approved in 2006 allows gun owners to shoot in defense of self, property or others and “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use force, including deadly force.” Alabama is also one of more than 30 states with such a law that expands beyond the home.

In 2014, the Safe Carry Protection Act, or “guns everywhere bill,” allowed guns to be carried in schools, bars, churches and government buildings, though property owners can impose such restrictions. 

Georgia Sen. Elena Parent and other Democrats have pushed for gun safety laws, including safe gun storage laws, especially as several incidents of young children being fatally killed from accessing guns have been spotlighted in the media. 

“(Republicans are) too busy trying to force women to give birth to be concerned with all of the children already here killed by guns due to their gun policies,” said Parent, while referencing Republican-led effort to restrict abortion. 

Georgia Gun Owners Executive Director Aaron Dorr, who along with his brothers are activists in various states, opposed many gun reform proposals, including safe storage proposals. 

He said such laws leave innocent people unable to defend themselves.

 “If you have a home invader trying to break into your home in the middle of the night and you have to stumble to a gun safe without your glasses on, open up your gun safe, then find your ammo, get your firearm ready to go before someone breaks in your front door and comes and attacks you, you might very well die doing that. … It’s not going to stop criminals,” Dorr said.

In June, Georgia Democrats held press conferences urging background checks for purchasing weapons and a ban on assault weapons in the state. The CDC ranked Georgia in the Top 15 states for gun deaths in 2020. 

In Georgia and Alabama, background checks to purchase firearms are required at licensed dealers, but not for private sales. There’s also a minimum age to possess rifles and shotguns in the states.

Democrat Georgia Rep. Sandra Scott said Republican leaders have failed to advance some simpler proposed gun safety measures, including a bill that would require firearms to be stored in a safe or locking device in homes, and a bill that would require reporting of a lost firearm.

This year Georgia, Alabama and other states approved bills allowing gun owners to carry without a permit. In 2017, the Georgia legislature passed the “campus carry” law, allowing concealed handguns to be carried on college campuses, with limits on certain areas where guns may be carried. 

Nearly 280,000 carry permits were issued and about 5,300 denied in 2020, up dramatically from the previous year when 188,720 were issued and 2,854 were denied.

Gun rights have been a central campaign piece in recent years, typical for Republican candidates. 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, in his notable 2018 campaign ad, is seen pointing a shotgun at a teen as the teen recites Kemp’s priorities, which included appreciation for Second Amendment Rights. This year, Mike Collins, who advanced in a June 21, Republican runoff for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, appeared in an ad shooting a rifle at mock documents of Democrat Nancy Pelosi in the woods. He also shoots a cardboard rhinoceros, made to depict a RINO, Republican in Name Only, and identifies himself as “pro-gun.”

Second Amendment also has strong support in Alabama

In a 2014 referendum, more than 72 percent of voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to provide every citizen “a fundamental right to bear arms” and to provide that “no international treaty or law shall prohibit, limit, or otherwise interfere with a citizen’s fundamental right to bear arms.”

In Alabama’s U.S. Senate race, the top three leading Republican candidates in the May 2022 primary elections voiced their support of gun rights in video ads. 

“Growing up in the Wiregrass, I learned to respect our Second Amendment and always shoot straight,” said Katie Britt in an ad as she shoots a shotgun while referencing plans to stop President Joe Biden’s “radical agenda” if elected. She won the Republican nomination in a June 21, runoff against Mo Brooks, a current U.S. Representative for Alabama.

Alabama was reported in the Top 5 states with the highest number of gun deaths in 2020, according to CDC data. 

The state, however, has lenient laws, including not having to register guns or not having to apply for a permit to own or purchase a firearm; state law does not stipulate the age required to purchase a gun through private sales and background checks aren’t required for private sales.

State officials also this year approved the Alabama Second Amendment Protection Act, prohibiting officers from enforcing any executive order issued by the president of the United States “which limits or restricts the ownership, use, or possession of firearms, ammunition, or firearm accessories by law-abiding residents of the state.”

In writing a previous piece on gun laws, Vars said little regulation on guns has been passed in Alabama. 

“The example I found was literally a prohibition from the 19th century on cane guns. So, it is still illegal in Alabama to have a gun concealed in a cane. Short of that, we really don’t have much state gun regulation, and it’s absolutely by design. The Republican Party obviously prioritizes gun rights,” Vars said.

He added: “The NRA is active in almost every state pushing in that direction. But in terms of what actually gets passed, I think the South relatively lacks gun regulation. I would add kind of the western or mountain states … Ohio, Wyoming, Montana, Utah. States up in that part of the country, I would say are just as lax.”

Gun reform proposals could be tough to pass in Republican-leaning states

Vars suggested that discussions on gun restrictions are often brought to the forefront following a tragedy such as a mass shooting. One of the only Southern states to implement a package of gun reform in recent years was Florida, following a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed. 

Some of the changes included raising the gun sale age to 21 and implementing “red flag” laws, which allow certain people to petition courts to remove firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

“We’re always kind of responding to the last tragedy,” Vars said. “But that seems to be the only way to get through. But once you do, you know, even in a state like Florida, you can get a lot of significant changes, you know, signed by a Republican governor. So that’s the kind of the unfortunate story of progress that seems to only come on the heels of a horrible tragedy.”

Another proposal tightening gun laws has been implementing waiting periods to buy a gun, which Dorr said could also be lethal. He referenced a victim of domestic violence who may need a weapon for protection. 

“While they wait for a gun permit to be issued by some state or county government, the person who is stalking them kills them,” he said. “Waiting periods, gun restrictions of all kinds, safe storage laws, it only benefits criminals, and so we oppose all of that stuff.”

The federal gun reform bill approved in Congress in June includes incentives for states to pass red flag laws, expands on ownership of guns by those convicted of domestic abuse and expands background checks for those younger than 21 to include access to juvenile and mental health records.

It garnered the votes of 14 Republican senators, enough to help inch the bill across the finish line. 

“All the bills right now in D.C. are an attack on our gun rights. Everything from red flag gun seizures, to raising the age on when Americans can buy firearms, to adding more juveniles to the criminal persons database. These are all simply efforts to take guns out of the hands of law-abiding Americans, and in many cases, before there has been a conviction in court for a crime. We oppose all of this,” said Dorr. 

Vars attributed previous unsuccessful attempts at passing gun restrictions at the Congressional level to the disproportionate representation of the South and Midwest (where guns are often used in hunting).

“Every (state) gets two senators, even though they may not have very many people and they are in some of these states that are overwhelmingly conservative,” Vars said. “Their senators — effectively even a minority of senators — have veto power over gun regulation. So to that extent, I think over-representation of the South and kind of the Mountain West in the Senate is absolutely fundamental to why it takes a generation before we get federal legislation.”

Gun shop owner describes gun demand in recent years 

Semiautomatic weapons have been used in all of the mass shootings spotlighted in the media in the last few months, and are often used in planned mass attacks. 

Wade Cummings, general manager of Georgia Gun Club, a firearm retailer and gun range in Buford, said semiautomatic weapons are sold frequently. 

“It’s the most popular firearm in the nation, and has been since the crime prevention act sunsetted, which was the assault weapons ban that was enacted in ’94,” he said. 

The Buford location also offers gun training and a prevalent reason participants indicate their interest in shooting guns is protection. 

“Everyone’s looking for self-protection in terms of in the home and outside the home.” 

Background checks for gun sales peaked in 2020 — when the COVID-19 pandemic and protests were prevalent across the country. FBI background checks for gun purchases were performed on more than 1 million people in Alabama in 2020, and more than 904,000 people in Georgia — the most the two states had seen in years. 

“We never saw anything like we saw in 2020, though. It was insane,” Cummings said. 

Supply chain issues in 2021 resulted in lower inventory and subsequently, fewer sales, Cummings said. 

“It was just terrible in terms of moving product. … Inventory’s coming back out, now everybody can get what they want. It’s really happening,” Cummings said. “People are coming back and buying the gun that they wanted a year and a half ago. So, those numbers it’s a lot higher than 2021.”

While he did not give his view on specific proposed gun restrictions when asked, he appeared to support restrictions related to background checks.

“The bottom line is if someone should not have a firearm because they’re a violent individual, we’re certainly not going to allow them to have a firearm as prescribed by law. If we can abide by whatever law is passed to prevent the wrong people from having firearms, that’s a great thing.”

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