Opinion - Georgia clings to its guns

Even pro-NRA Peach State could be dragged into a more sensible place

Seeing longtime National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre stammering through an increasingly hostile interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace this past Sunday provided momentary gratification, to be sure. But it also offered yet more encouragement that the forces of sanity seem to be gaining momentum in the current national debate over gun control.

For as long as I can remember, the NRA has been a politically unassailable monolith able to cow all but the most liberal Congressfolk into submission. Like a Teflon-coated bullet, the nation's most effective special-interest group has successfully plowed through all obstacles, ever pushing to eliminate even the most reasonable gun-control regulations.

In recent years in Georgia, the NRA and its allies had managed to force through bills allowing guns to be carried into restaurants, city parks, and even public transportation. Georgia joined Florida and other states in passing "stand-your-ground" laws, creating an instant murder defense for anyone claiming to have killed because he felt threatened. The gun lobby even won a partial victory over business interests in 2008, when state lawmakers voted to prohibit private companies from making employee parking lots off-limits to guns, so long as they were kept locked in workers' cars.

Just last year, state legislators eager to maintain their NRA approval ratings passed a bill mandating that police departments must auction off confiscated firearms — even though law-enforcement officials opposed a move that could put thousands of guns back on the streets.

But now it feels as if the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way. From the repulsive and absurd NRA commercial accusing President Obama of being an "elitist hypocrite" because his daughters have Secret Service protection to LaPierre's conspiracy-theory rantings about a secret national gun-owner registry, it's clear the gun lobby is on the defensive.

In the wake of December's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the NRA quickly tried to distract attention away from gun control with the ludicrous argument that the shootings in Connecticut might have been prevented or cut short if only teachers and school administrators were allowed — nay, encouraged — to pack heat.

Well, ludicrous to me, anyway. Here in Georgia, some lawmakers took those talking points seriously and introduced House Bill 35. The legislation would give local school boards the authority to decide whether to arm and train designated school administrators to serve as classroom Rambos. (The legislation is mum on whether the chosen administrators have the right to decline this honor.)

It's still too early to predict whether the bill will pass this session, but my guess is some school districts that can't afford to hire security guards, like those employed in many urban schools, might welcome the chance to arm teachers. Even if no carnage resulted from such a move, I don't believe for an instant that it would save lives or do much more than offer parents a false sense of security.

The NRA's other post-Newtown smokescreen argues that America doesn't need gun restrictions; it needs better services to keep the mentally ill from shooting up schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc. Some Georgia lawmakers trotted out the same line before the legislative session began.

The irony, of course, is that any such services would likely be delivered by Medicaid, which has been slashed to the bone by cash-strapped state legislatures across the country, including Georgia's. Even if the state weren't in a revenue slump, it's hard to picture Republican lawmakers funneling more money into a program they so nakedly disdain. Gov. Nathan Deal unwisely opted out of expanding the program here in Georgia as part of Obama's new health-care overhaul. And we haven't heard a peep from lawmakers about revisiting the mental-health issue thus far.

Still, Georgia could help matters simply with a more complete reporting of mentally unstable people to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. According to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the advocacy group founded by New York's Michael Bloomberg, Georgia is near the lower end of states providing necessary mental-health data to the NICS.

Although we're lagging behind the curve, as usual, it's still possible to feel upbeat. Ask Alice Johnson, the longtime executive director of Georgians for Gun Safety, who agrees that the NRA at last is showing some chinks in its armor.

"I'm really hopeful, for the first time in my 23 years as an activist, that we'll see some changes," she says. "The national conversation has placed the issue of gun responsibility alongside that of gun rights. I think we've reached a tipping point brought on by outrage over the loss of life from firearms."

And while Georgia lawmakers are unlikely to pass any new restrictions, an Obama-backed law mandating universal background checks — such a no-brainer that LaPierre himself publicly supported them in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shootings — would have immediate impact on a state whose many gun shows were cited by Bloomberg's group in 2008 as among the top destinations for interstate weapons smugglers and straw buyers.

The president's other main initiatives — limiting magazine size and banning military-style assault weapons — stand less chance of passage this year. But the NRA spent years promoting its sick brand of "from my cold, dead hands" survivalist paranoia, so we shouldn't expect to see its handiwork undone overnight.

But we do seem to be seeing the beginning of a national discussion about sensible gun control. And that's a great place to start.

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