Cover Story: Gun-toting in Georgia
How I learned to stop worrying and love carrying my gun
If you intend to rob me, stab me or punch me in the neck because you think I looked at you funny, I recommend you glance at my waist before lifting the pull tab on that can of whoop-ass.
I may be carrying a handgun.
Nearly everyone in our state can legally keep guns in their home. I am one of the few, the proud, the Georgia Firearms Licensed – one of a reported 300,000 Georgians permitted to carry a gun in public.
Unlike the 9.2 million-or-so Peach Staters who do not possess firearms licenses, I'm legally permitted to carry a gun pretty much everywhere I go – walking my dogs, sipping a latte at my neighborhood coffee shop, buying deodorant at Target.
Firearms licenses are easy to get in Georgia. All you need is a clean criminal record, about $40 and a couple of hours to spend at your county's probate court.
If you're married, you may already be familiar with probate court. It's also the place that issues marriage licenses. In fact, when you call the Fulton County Probate Court the recorded message actually says "For information about marriage licenses, please press one. For information about firearms licenses, please press two." Romantic, eh?
I got my gun license a year and a half ago after I was relieved of my wallet at gunpoint at my front door by a man who threatened to come back for me if I cancelled my ATM and credit cards.
Since he was clearly comfortable dropping by the house unannounced, police told me to take the threat seriously by carrying a gun myself.
I've had handguns for target shooting since I was a kid, but never carried one for self-defense. After the robbery, I applied for a permit so I could carry a gun without breaking the law. And even before the license arrived, I started to carry my gun from my driveway to my front door, which is legal; I was scared the guy would keep his promise and come back for me.
As it turned out he was arrested a couple of weeks later, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
When my permit arrived in the mail, I stuck it in my wallet and pretty much forgot about it. I didn't start carrying a weapon. He was in jail and I moved to a less transitional neighborhood. I felt safe again.
Nearly everyone I spend time with regularly has a visceral and fearful reaction to guns. Having so many gun-dreading friends and acquaintances has taught me to keep guns where no one will ever see them. Carrying a gun in public seemed like peeing in the sink of a public restroom. Not illegal, but definitely a first-degree jerk move.
I was also afraid of the reaction of strangers. I would hate to be the subject of this 911 call: "Hello, police, I'm at the Publix on North Decatur Road and there's a swarthy bald man here with a gun. He's headed for the Lean Cuisine."
So, although I had a permit, I was less than thrilled that the General Assembly passed H.B. 89 in April. The new law would give licensed firearms permit holders the right to legally carry guns into places that used to be off-limits: city and state parks, public transportation, and restaurants that serve alcohol.
It seemed to me that the law encouraged colossal dickheadedness by legalizing behavior – carrying guns openly in public – that makes people nervous.
Under the new law, I could now legally take my gun into a restaurant that served alcohol – which includes places many consider bars, such as the Earl or Manuel's Tavern. I could Rollerblade in Piedmont Park while packing heat. I could even take a gun on MARTA.
Imagine if someone with a firearms license walked onto a MARTA train with a shotgun. He couldn't be arrested, even though someone can be ticketed for eating on a train.
"So I just want to be clear," I asked MARTA police Chief Wanda Dunham. "If I had a turkey sandwich in one hand and a gun in the other hand, MARTA police would ticket me for the turkey sandwich?"
"If you're eating it," she replied. "Only if you're eating it."
Someone with a permit can board a MARTA train with a shotgun?
"That's what the law says," she replied. Then, with sarcasm, she adds, "It just gives you that warm fuzzy feeling."
The law, which was passed in the last hours of the Legislature, drew sharp criticism from anti-gun organizations. Brian Siebel, senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says there will likely be more violence at places guns were once prohibited.
He points out that Timothy McVeigh and Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer, both would have qualified for a firearm's license that allows you to carry a gun openly. "Just because you get a driver's license doesn't mean you're a good driver," he says. "People who engage in road rage probably all have a driver's license."
The Georgia Restaurant Association lobbied against the law, even though it prohibits people with guns from consuming alcohol in a restaurant. The restaurateurs argued that it's impossible to determine whether someone drinking alcohol is also carrying a concealed weapon. "We didn't want the bill to pass," Keisha Carter, the association's director of public affairs, says. "Asking if you're 21 and if you have a concealed weapon should not be a responsibility of anyone in this industry."
On July 1, the day the law went into effect, there was a showdown of sorts.
The city had already announced it wouldn't allow people to carry guns on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport property, unless it was unloaded and in checked luggage. The author of the legislation, state Rep. Tim Bearden, countered that the law allows people to carry guns up to the security checkpoints. The Villa Rica Republican happened to be picking someone up at the airport that day and had vowed to bring his gun with him.
Mayor Shirley Franklin and airport General Manager Ben DeCosta held a press conference at Hartsfield-Jackson to publicize their intention to keep the airport a gun-free zone. They were joined by the media and a half-dozen members of the gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org, there to protest the city's position.
Bearden and his gun never showed up at the airport, though. But later that day, he did file a lawsuit against the city for banning guns from the airport. A hearing is scheduled next month.
The city argues the airport and its parking lots are municipal buildings, and therefore not subject to the law's public transit provision. In their speeches, both Franklin and DeCosta emphasized the 9/11 attacks as reason to keep guns out of the airport. The city's found a powerful ally in U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who's demanding that the Transportation Security Administration ban guns from all parts of major airports.
"I keep hearing the phrase 'in this post-9/11 society' and I'm so sick of that," said Mark McCullough, a GeorgiaCarry.org member who was at the press conference. "What 9/11 showed me was that the government has no ability to protect me. I don't want to be walking around the parking lot here with my cell phone being the only device protecting me."
While I was at the airport, GeorgiaCarry.org treasurer Michael Menkus invited me to a party. To celebrate their newly granted right to carry guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, members of the group planned to meet at Christos, a Greek-style pizzeria in Marietta, to eat dinner with handguns strapped to their waists.
After work that day, I grabbed my Beretta 92FS (a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun I bought for target shooting when I was in college because I thought it looked cool on the Lethal Weapon movie poster) and headed to Christos.
Even though I knew the place would be filled with people openly carrying guns, and that the restaurant welcomed them, I still walked in sheepishly with my gun hidden inside my computer bag. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn't believe it was socially acceptable to openly carry a pistol into a restaurant.
The scene inside amazed me – 40 or 50 people, mostly men, casually socializing in a public restaurant and every one of them had firearms.
I didn't walk in expecting the Wild West, but I definitely expected more of a macho, sausage-party vibe than was apparent. As it turned out, I've been to bar trivia nights that were more menacing.
The closest thing to machismo I encountered was when gunsmith David McDonald sarcastically referred to the high-capacity, 27-round magazine in his semi-automatic pistol as, "the crowd pleaser." He joked that he almost wanted someone to attempt a hold-up of the restaurant that night: "There'd be 500 guns pointed at him, and he'd piss himself."
"There's no blood on the floor," Menkus deadpanned when I told him how surprised I was at the low-key tenor of the celebration. Menkus had a Glock 19 on his waist, and said he was happy about the new law. He believes an armed citizenry is essential to the preservation of civil liberties.
Steve Guldin, an engineer at Lockheed, took a more practical attitude. He carries a concealed weapon when he's not at work, describing it as an insurance policy. "People ask me sometimes if I feel more safe with a gun," he said. "I don't. My risk of being a victim of crime doesn't change if I have a gun concealed."
Having a gun, he said, merely gives him one more option in how he responds – along with fleeing, or calling the police – if he's targeted for a crime. He added that he's never been a crime victim.
Everyone I talked to said they've never attracted any attention from wearing a gun in public. Menkus suggested it's probably because they're mostly middle-aged white guys, and many times people assume they're police officers.
My eyes were drawn to the lone black man in the room, and I wondered if he'd encountered any problems when he'd carried a gun in public places. Zaylvia Carmichael immediately recognized my agenda. "You're asking me because I'm the first black dude you've seen here tonight," he said.
Carmichael has had a permit for 12 years. He's never been targeted for a crime, but pointed to a scar on his chin. He explained it was caused when he was hit by a stray bullet fired during a drive-by shooting outside a bar in rural Georgia many years ago.
Carmichael carries a concealed weapon nearly everywhere he goes, and sometimes openly carries if he's walking to and from his car late at night. He has openly carried at Wal-Mart several times, he said, and has never been the target of a "there's a man with a gun" 911 call.
I had a hard time believing that anyone, black or white, could openly carry into a restaurant or on MARTA without getting ugly looks or police attention. So I invited Carmichael to join me for dinner the following week. I'll buy, I said, on the condition that we both openly carry holstered pistols into the restaurant.
And it couldn't be a GeorgiaCarry.org gun party in Cobb County, either. It had to be a place where nobody expects – or wants – someone to be packing.
I figured if I was going to take the plunge and openly carry, then Carmichael and I might as well do it in the least appropriate, newly legal-to-carry place I could think of: Chuck E. Cheese.
The relationship between gun ownership and violence is subject to fierce debate that anyone with even a passing interest in the issue probably knows by heart.
Advocates of stricter gun control say the high rate of gun ownership in the United States, compared with other industrialized nations, fuels violent crime. It's a suggestion supported by numerous studies. While overall crime rates in the United States are comparable to Western Europe, our murder rate is much higher – on par with many poorer, less stable nations.
Supporters of permissive gun ownership dismiss those comparisons and say banning guns will take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens without disarming criminals. Near-total gun bans in such cities as Chicago and Washington have had no apparent impact on murder rates.
Gun-control advocates (like my editor, who made me put this point in) counter that many guns in big cities come from states with more permissive gun laws, like Georgia.
Regardless of crime stats, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled for the first time that individual gun ownership is a constitutional right.
Ed Stone, president of GeorgiaCarry.org, says fears that Georgia's new gun law will result in increased violence are misplaced. "Georgia is by no means on the cutting edge here," he says. Other states already allow some residents to carry firearms in restaurants that serve alcohol. He says there's no evidence to indicate people legally carrying guns into restaurants are getting into "drunken shootouts."
"Our members view their license to carry as something that's extremely important to them," Stone says. "They're not going to risk losing their license and going to jail for a year to have a beer."
Siebel of the Brady Center agrees that most gun-permit holders are responsible; it's the few who aren't that worries him. Especially when Georgia has no requirement for training to receive a license. "It's ridiculous to claim licensees are all upstanding, law-abiding citizens," he says. He cites a Violence Policy Center study showing Texas gun-permit holders were arrested for 5,314 crimes between 1996 and 2001.
Nevertheless, a report Siebel authored for the Brady Center describes just five examples since 1997 of a permit holder discharging weapons at restaurants. Three were accidents, one was an argument and one involved a drunken man who shot a toilet to pieces. None of the incidents resulted in fatalities.
Siebel says his list contains only a "tiny fraction" of crimes committed by licensees because neither law-enforcement nor the media typically report whether those arrested had a gun license.
As states loosen gun restrictions across the country, Siebel is concerned about the additional number of deaths since people will have greater access to guns in moments of rage. "It's not going to be thousands; it's going to be dozens," he says. "We have so many gun deaths in this country that we slough it off as insignificant."
It took me a while to build up the courage to openly carry a gun in public. It's difficult to shake off years of social conditioning and, honestly, if I hadn't been writing this story, I probably wouldn't have done it.
I started my counterconditioning by dining alone, with my gun very much concealed. I picked a cheap Asian restaurant near my house so if someone got upset with me for carrying a gun, it wouldn't matter that I'd be too embarrassed to ever return there again.
Still, it made me sick to slip my Smith & Wesson .38 special revolver into my pocket and walk into the restaurant. Even though it was legal and nobody even knew the gun was there, I had knots in my stomach like I was doing something terrible. The feeling didn't go away, even after I got home. In retrospect it may have been the chicken I ate.
A few days later, I pushed myself a little further.
I holstered the .38 on my belt, but wore an untucked shirt to cover it. I thought the outline of the gun was obvious through the shirt, but evidently it wasn't. I interviewed several people at Vinocity in Kirkwood about guns in restaurants, and not one of them commented on the bulge under my shirt.
John Turpin, the owner, said he's not really fretting about people bringing weapons into his restaurant because, short of putting a metal detector at the door, he has no way of keeping guns out.
"There could be four guns in here right now for all I know," he said to me. The restaurant is dark with reddish lighting, so Turpin probably didn't notice my face turn red with shame. He was talking to me about guns, and had no idea I was carrying one. I felt like such an asshole.
I chickened out of taking Zaylvia Carmichael to Chuck E. Cheese with our guns.
When I mentioned the plan to a friend who is usually supportive of my stupid ideas, he sounded appalled. He didn't elaborate, but he's the father of two small kids. I suspect the thought of two yutzes pushing social boundaries by carrying pistols into Chuck E. Cheese contravened his sense of decency.
So instead of choosing an inappropriate place for dinner, Carmichael and I chose an ironically appropriate place: a LongHorn Steakhouse.
We were to meet at the one on Camp Creek Parkway because it's close to his house. When I arrived, I got out of the car, tucked in my shirt and put the .38 on my belt. I started to walk to the entrance and less than halfway to the door, I turned around and went back into my car. Carmichael wasn't there yet and I was too nervous to walk in alone.
After 15 minutes, he called to tell me he was waiting in front of the restaurant. I walked around front and there he was, wearing jeans, a baseball cap, a tucked-in rugby shirt, and a .40-caliber Glock on his belt.
What happens when a Middle Eastern-looking man and a young black man walk into a LongHorn with loaded pistols on their belts?
"Welcome to LongHorn, will it just be the two of you?"
The hostess told us there would be a 20-minute wait. We stood at the doorway and talked. Nobody said a word or even looked at us funny. A few people glanced down at my belt as they walked up, but honestly, a new iPhone would have caused a bigger fuss than our guns.
While we waited, I told Carmichael that my original plan was to meet him at Chuck E. Cheese. "I've been to Chuck E. Cheese with a gun," he casually replied.
The only awkward moment of the evening was when our food arrived. Carmichael told me that my entree, the Outlaw Steak, looked far more appetizing than the shrimp he'd ordered.
"It's a huge steak; you can have half," I said.
"Two dudes sharing food," he replied. "That's gay."
I had walked up to the restaurant concerned that something bad would happen because I was carrying a gun. I worried that I'd be confronted by someone, or that someone would call the police. At the least, I expected hostile or fearful stares.
Instead, nothing happened. I realized that I was more aware of my gun than anyone else in the restaurant. I was nervous and terribly self-conscious. My gun was easily visible to about 15 people during dinner. No one paid attention to it.
The only person who acted like it was strange to have a gun in a restaurant was me.
As I walked back to my car that night, I felt a mild panic rise when I realized my keys weren't in my pockets. When I reached my car, the driver's door was unlocked. I opened it and looked inside. I'd been so nervous and distracted over the gun, I'd left my keys resting in the ignition.
A couple days later, my fiancee suggested running some errands together. If she'd suggested it two weeks earlier, I would've picked up my iPod. But after the experience at LongHorn, I wasn't nervous anymore. Today, it was the iPod and the gun.
We had lunch, bought dog food and even went to the Target on Moreland to buy deodorant. I stood in line at the checkout behind a Fulton County Sheriff's deputy. If she noticed that I had a .38 on my waist, she didn't let on.
The following week, my car broke down on the highway while I was on my way to the shooting range. Again, I had a pistol on my belt. The tow truck driver didn't seem to notice. Nor did the staff at the tire shop. If they were bothered by my gun, they didn't let on. I got the same slow, sullen service I've always gotten at discount tire shops.
By now, openly carrying felt comfortable enough that I decided to subject myself to one last test: MARTA.
Chief Dunham told me it's MARTA police policy to confront anyone with a visible gun and ask to see a permit. Could I ride MARTA to work, during rush hour, with a gun on my waist, without alarming passengers or earning a possibly unpleasant chat with MARTA police?
At 8 a.m. on a Thursday, I clipped my Beretta to my belt at the Edgewood-Candler Park station. I had decided to carry the Beretta because it's about 2.5 times the size of my .38 revolver. You can't help but see it.
With my Breeze Card in hand – and my gun permit and driver's license in my left pocket, intentionally opposite the holster in case I had to produce them for MARTA police – I took the escalator into the station.
I passed four people along the way.
At the passenger gate, I passed a woman who appeared to be in a MARTA uniform.
"Good morning," she said, without glancing at my gun.
I waited on the platform, with a dozen or so people, and even stood in the middle of the crowd so the most people could see me.
I'd been as conspicuous as possible and nobody reacted. Nobody acted as though they felt threatened by this stranger with a gun on his waist. It changed my perception of how the public views guns, even in the liberal core of the metro area. I got the same reaction on MARTA as I did in Cobb County, as I did shopping in Target or walking my dogs in Decatur – no reaction.
I carried my gun in public because I was writing this story, and one thing that surprised me was how quickly I became comfortable with it. But I don't think it's going to become a habit. It's still a big deal to carry a gun. Guns are intended to kill people, or at least to threaten to kill people. That's really not a message I want to convey, even if it's not the message people seem to get when they see me with a gun.
When the train arrived, I made one last effort at being conspicuous. I boarded and walked all the way down the car to ensure the greatest number of people could see the gun on my belt.
When I sat down and looked up to see if anyone was staring at me, I discovered that most of the passengers were looking down or staring into space. Two people watched a woman in a pink tank top who casually put on deodorant as she munched pretzels.
She was eating on a MARTA train. That's illegal. Where's a cop when you really need one?