Mass shootings spur calls for state gun laws; limits face stiff headwinds

Some Georgia Democratic lawmakers are pointing to recent mass shootings in metro Atlanta and Colorado as evidence the state needs to tighten restrictions on firearm sales in the state. Megan Varner/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic, the state budget and voting rights have dominated this year’s legislative session, but with days to go before lawmakers return to their districts, the battle over gun laws has resurfaced after horrific mass shootings in the past week.

Eight people were killed in an Atlanta-area shooting spree targeting Asian-owned spas last week, and 10 more lost their lives in Colorado Monday when a gunman opened fire in a grocery store.

Democratic lawmakers are pointing to the violence as evidence Georgia needs to tighten restrictions on firearms in the state.

“Republicans both in Congress and in Georgia have resisted all attempts supported by the public to regulate guns,” said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I want to remind everyone that we are the only developed country that lives in terror of mass shootings. No other country grapples with this the way that we do, far from it. So I call yet again for us to use our brains when it comes to the proliferation of weapons in America.”

On Tuesday, state Democratic lawmakers introduced a slate of legislation in response to the metro Atlanta attacks, including a House bill and a Senate bill that would institute a wait of five business days for gun purchases.

The man charged with murder in the Atlanta shootings, Robert Aaron Long of Woodstock, bought a gun hours before the killings, according to investigators. Georgia does not require a waiting period to buy firearms.

“That man bought that firearm on the same day, and that afternoon, he killed eight people,” said Sen. Michelle Au, the Johns Creek Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill. “We don’t know what his motivations are, I don’t want to speculate. But what a five-day waiting period does is allow for cooling off, if there’s a crime of passion, suicidality, there are a lot of more impulsive acts that can take place that we can defuse by not giving someone access to a gun immediately.”

Flowers, candles and cards stood outside Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County after four people were shot to death there March 16 as part of what would become known as the Atlanta spa shootings. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Gun rights activists say waiting periods could put people in danger.

“If you’re a woman who’s been abused as either a wife or a significant other and the guy’s going to come kill you, what are you going to do, get a restraining order? It’s a piece of paper, it won’t stop a bullet.” said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun rights group. “If you can’t go down and get one to protect yourself immediately when you feel like you’re in danger, then the government is not providing the service.”

President Joe Biden weighed in on the gun debate Tuesday after the Colorado attack, calling on senators to pass two background check bills already approved by the House.

“This is not — it should not be — a partisan issue, this is an American issue,” he said. “It will save lives, American lives. We have to act.”

Biden met with members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community at Atlanta’s Emory University in the wake of the attacks Friday

The odds of the Georgia Democrats’ bill becoming law this year are not good. They were filed with less than a week to go before the legislative session ends, and gun control measures do not often find success in the Republican-dominated state Legislature, a fact lamented by Brookhaven Democrat Rep. Matthew Wilson in a floor speech Tuesday.

“We’ve offered bills that have received no hearings. We’ve channeled voices that have been stonewalled,” he said. “Does gun violence really have to touch your family before you’re ready to worry about something other than your next primary?”

Democrats in the House and Senate filed gun bills this session with provisions including barring people convicted of family violence from owning guns, requiring training courses for concealed carry and limiting gun show sales to licensed dealers, but none gained any traction.

That is par for the course in Georgia’s Legislature.

In 2019, Atlanta Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan sponsored a bill to ban people convicted of misdemeanor family violence from owning firearms. It had bipartisan support as well as the support of police groups, but it died before reaching the Senate floor after gun rights groups came out against it.

“The number one thing is, if you want change, you’re going have to change the folks that are representing you now,” she said. “In terms of the legislation that I’ve tried to push up here, legislation that was even supported by law enforcement, like just keeping guns out of the hands of folks convicted of domestic abuse, a law that is already in place at the federal level, the whole point was to protect women and children from abusers. And even that couldn’t get over. That should be a no-brainer. If that kind of legislation can’t move forward, can’t even come to the floor for a vote, then anything else is definitely a harder push.”

“Not that it’s not worth the fight,” she added. “Because that’s the only way you get change, you have to keep talking about it. You have to keep pushing in the hope that you’ll get there eventually.”

Au said she is under no illusion the bill will pass this year, but she is hoping it will help move the debate forward, and the bill will still be alive during next year’s session.

“We have to realize we live in the state of Georgia, and we live in a country where gun violence and gun safety is inherently politicized,” she said. “So this is a moment during which we can talk about this issue, in a way that people may be more receptive to some of these more common sense forms of gun legislation and to just change some minds, have these conversations while it’s still fresh, and set the groundwork for next year.”

Some of those minds could be hard to change. Guns and Ammo Magazine ranked Georgia at No. 11 on its 2020 list of the most gun-friendly states. Henry thinks it deserves to be ranked higher than that.

He points to the growing urban-rural divide in the state as a reason for the disconnect on guns among lawmakers. Rural Georgians are more likely to have grown up with guns in the house used for hunting and see them as part of their way of life.

“If you get out of the city, you see a whole lot more people with guns,” he said. “The rural people that grew up that way, they grow up around them, and they know that they have a purpose, and that purpose is not to go out and kill people. They are trained at an early age to use a gun safely. It’s just something that’s kind of expected. I’ve carried one, I’ve used one all my life, and I want to protect that.”

Georgia gun owners could soon enjoy greater protections if a bill that passed the state House last month finds approval in the Senate before the 2021 legislative session ends next week.

The bill would allow the Georgia attorney general’s office to expand reciprocity with other states and grant licensed gun owners the ability to carry their weapons in Georgia.

It would also curtail the governor’s power to restrict gun rights during a state of emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic and set rules for probate judges, some of whom have all but stopped granting weapon licenses during the pandemic, said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mandi Ballinger.

Ballinger represents part of Cherokee County, where one of the spas targeted in the attack is located. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Henry, whose group strongly supports the bill, said he has fielded calls from people across the state who have been unable to get a license during the pandemic.

“I got an email from a guy last month in Henry County who tried to get an appointment, they told him you have to get an appointment, the next appointment is in September,” he said.

Some have questioned whether the timing is right for the state to pass a gun rights expansion in the wake of a high-profile mass shooting.

Henry said he has heard those arguments, but does not buy into them. He thinks the bill has a good chance of passing.

“If you go back and ask the same people who are saying this is not the time, ask them when the right time is, you won’t get an answer,” he said. “If you get an answer, it’ll be well, there’s not a good time, if they tell you the truth, because they don’t want you to be able to exercise your rights.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.