Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

Dueling gun bills show legislative sausage-making at its worst

To Gold Dome watchers, there’s little that tops the bemused thrill that comes from witnessing bitter feuds between factions of the same special-interest group.

Last week, a clutch of lawmakers and lobbyists openly argued that Georgians should be able to pack heat in their chosen house of worship. At the same time, a different set of gun enthusiasts was pushing legislation that said businesses should not be able to tell employees they can’t bring their shootin’ irons to the company parking lot.

This being Georgia, neither of these measures is widely considered wack-a-doo fringe legislation – in fact, both have already passed the House and backroom deals reportedly were struck to send several of the gun-friendly provisions to the governor’s desk.

And yet, despite the welcoming atmosphere for guns in Georgia, the legislation is stalled in the Senate, where it likely will languish until near the end of the General Assembly. If another session passes without a gun bill being enacted – a genuine possibility – it would stand as an example of how infighting among Second Amendment enthusiasts helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The tale began last year when the National Rifle Association announced its top legislative priority was a bill to prohibit businesses from telling employees they couldn’t keep guns in their cars while parked on company property. The measure was dutifully introduced in the House and Senate by two young Republicans: Rep. Tom Graves of Ranger, and state Sen. Chip Rogers of Woodstock.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce argued that, by curtailing the ability of companies to control their own parking lots, the bill infringed on private property rights. The argument appealed to the libertarian leanings of many conservatives and the bills fell by the wayside, despite the NRA’s considerable lobbying firepower.

Also last year, Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, dropped a modest bill aimed at removing restrictions on where gun-toting motorists can keep their sidearms in the car. Current state law requires guns to be stored in the glove box or center console, or in full view, as on the passenger seat.

Bearden’s HB 89 passed the House in 2007 but stalled in the Senate. So this year he came back with a far more expansive rewrite, HB 915. Backed by a local group called Georgia Carry, Bearden’s new bill also would allow folks to carry guns wherever they wanted with few restrictions, but was hazy on specifics – other than to lift a ban on firearms near the grounds of private, but not public, schools. The bill also specifically states that companies should not be forced to allow employees to keep guns in their cars at work.

But last month Bearden’s original legislation became the unwilling host for a number of NRA-backed amendments in the Senate. The word is that the governor’s office had negotiated a deal with the NRA that gave it a few of the measures it wanted in the interest of getting the bill out of the way so it would quit swallowing up hours of valuable law-making time.

Among the add-ons: a provision that allows an employee to keep guns in his car at work, provided he holds a valid state gun permit; and a measure that absolves businesses from legal liability if said employee retrieves his gun from his car and goes postal on his co-workers.

When Bearden attended the Senate Rules Committee, he suggested he was less than enthused with the “guns in parking lots” language being added to his bill. Rules Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, warned Bearden that if he tinkered with the amended legislation, he might well end up with nothing.

But tinker he did. When HB 89 went back to the House after clearing the Senate, Bearden made a motion to “disagree” with the Senate’s language, then proceeded to add still more amendments to repeal state laws that currently prohibit guns in certain settings. Among the places where Bearden’s bill would make gun-toting lawful: churches, restaurants that serve alcohol, Little League games and most types of public gatherings. Interestingly, guns would be banned at “political rallies or functions.”

Other new provisions also would allow permit holders to carry guns into public parks, historic sites and recreational areas; allow judges, prosecutors and retired state troopers to carry guns into government office buildings; and put probate courts under the gun to approve a permit in a mere 10 days.

Both the House and Senate have appointed committees to negotiate a final version of the bill, but Balfour, who heads up one such group, says he has no plans to bend.

“The Senate likes its position, so there’s no reason to negotiate,” he says. “There’s not a lot of eagerness to keep up this debate.”

Ed Stone, president of Georgia Carry, says his group – of which Bearden is a member – felt no obligation to stand by any deal cut between other parties. If that means cutting the feet out from under the NRA, so be it.

“Our main goal is to remove some of the restrictions as to where Georgians can carry their guns,” he says. Citing an incident last year when a woman trained as a security guard used a handgun to bring down a man firing automatic weapons into the congregation of a Colorado Springs church, Stone plans to stand firm on the measure to lift the state ban on guns in church.

Alice Johnson, executive director of Georgians for Gun Safety, says Bearden’s amendment to allow guns into restaurants and other public places is a terrible and misguided idea. “It sends an outrageous message that you don’t have to be responsible for controlling your behavior,” Johnson says. “There’s nothing in the bill that says you can’t drink while armed.”

Johnson is lobbying against both of Bearden’s amendments, and wants the state to require safety training for those who hold gun permits in Georgia.

The gun proposals are dormant for now, but could become a bargaining chip later in the session. With Republicans squabbling so publicly over gun legislation, there’s only one group that stands to benefit.

Explains Senate Minority Whip David Adelman, D-Atlanta: “This situation has given Democrats the opportunity to show the business community that we’re the party of common sense.”