Last week, one day shy of the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the State Bar of Georgia hosted a panel on gun legislation that’s likely to come up in January, when lawmakers return to the state Capitol.
Next year marks the beginning of another election season in a Republican-controlled state, and that fact alone will supersede any fallout from this year’s crop of massacres – which include 59 dead in Las Vegas in October and 26 killed inside a Texas church in November.
And so the hour-long culture clash was a sober one. I was the moderator.
The two major forces on the panel were state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, perhaps the most resolute foe of permissive gun laws in the Legislature, and John Monroe, vice president and legal counsel for GeorgiaCarry.org, the most aggressive gun-rights organization in the Capitol.
Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson and Marvin Lim, representing a group called the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, played supporting roles.
Oliver is the author of two current pieces of gun legislation. House Bill 10 would prohibit the sale of assault weapons, large-capacity magazines and armor-piercing ammunition. HB 651 would ban bump stocks, the devices that the Las Vegas shooter used to turn his semi-automatic rifles into something close to machine guns.
Neither measure stands a chance of passage. This was Oliver’s own assessment, which included a deep sense of history. “Gun legislation is never gone. It’s always been there,” she said.
But in decades past, she said, gun bills had a bipartisan flavor. And were often suggested by law enforcement officials worried about pawn shop thefts or gun-runners.
You would think that increased firepower employed by civilians would worry sheriffs and police chiefs. And it does. They just can’t talk about it in public anymore.
“They tell me very directly, ‘I really can’t come near any of your legislation. The political issue is too hot for me. And I really just can’t be there,’” Oliver said.
Georgia sheriffs, of course, are elected officials subject to campaign dynamics. But Oliver said that last spring, she had Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields lined up for a press conference to endorse her assault weapons ban. A call from Mayor Kasim Reed’s office deep-sixed the police chief’s appearance at the last minute, Oliver said. (A spokeswoman for Reed disputed the lawmaker’s account, adding that Shield’s predecessor was often encouraged to support gun control legislation.)
As mentioned above, divisions on the panel weren’t just political. Lifestyles were in play. The topic had shifted to bump stocks and trigger cranks – the latter is another cheap, easily obtained accessory that can convert a semi-automatic rifle into a small Gatling gun.
“I don’t see anybody having a hobby of going out and doing rapid fire on a range. I don’t see a real purpose for it,” said Jackson, a former FBI agent now in his third term as sheriff.
“It’s a lot of fun,” countered Monroe, the GeorgiaCarry.org lawyer. “I’ve been to the range and shot with trigger cranks, and they’re fun. It’s a fun thing to do.”
Monroe said the top priority for GeorgiaCarry.org next year would be the state’s new law permitting concealed weaponry in some – but not all – areas on public university campuses.
Gov. Nathan Deal had vetoed a similar bill in 2016, on the grounds that it would have permitted concealed firearms in sensitive areas such as university day care centers. The 2017 version won the governor’s approval. Among the university areas that remain off-limits to guns: Day care centers, dormitories and classrooms where high school students are present.
“I’d like to see it a lot more simplified, so that a person who wants to carry and wants to follow the law can do it without keeping a rule book and a list of buildings,” Monroe said.
GeorgiaCarry.org will advocate the elimination of all restrictions on carrying concealed weapons on public campuses – and more besides. Monroe wants private colleges and universities subject to the campus-carry law, too. Places like Emory University and Agnes Scott College.
“I don’t think the state should criminalize what happens on private property,” Monroe said.
As property owners, private universities and colleges can ban weapons from their campuses, he acknowledged, just as bars can – but violations should be handled through the state’s laws against trespassing. As misdemeanors, in other words.
The afternoon brought one bright spot of agreement. Susan Tate, a member of the audience and a probate court judge from Athens, asked whether the state agency in charge of Georgia’s public mental hospitals should be required to report the names of patients who are involuntarily committed to those facilities — with the aim of keeping guns out of their hands.
That’s right. They don’t do it now.
Sure, said the lawyer for GeorgiaCarry.org. No problem.
I confess I had one agenda item of my own. In 2012, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 350, a measure that bars local law enforcement agencies from destroying owner-less firearms confiscated during criminal investigations. They must be auctioned off to a wholesaler instead.
The law borders on idolatry. No matter what it’s been used for, the life of a gun must be preserved, according to this Georgia law. New owners must be found. No other weapons – knives, bats or chains — receive that kind of protection. One reason wholesalers might have wanted it: Collectors will spend top dollar on guns used in heinous crimes.
Fortunately, the 2012 measure included no enforcement provision. So far, many cities and counties have ignored it.
Many lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, have expressed regret over its hasty passage five years ago. On Wednesday, Oliver identified SB 84, authored by Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, a bill to repeal the provision, as one of the few gun measures that might be ripe for discussion next month.
GeorgiaCarry.org’s lawyer expressed a nuanced position on the issue. “It wasn’t something that GeorgiaCarry was particularly pushing,” Monroe said. And yet now that it’s on the books, his group will oppose the repeal of SB 350.
In fact, GeorgiaCarry.org might push to add penalties to the law, to punish cities and counties who ignore it, the lawyer said. After our panel adjourned, I asked Monroe to explain. Why was it so important to put orphaned firearms back on the street?
His answer: Gun enthusiasts think law enforcement agencies are often too aggressive when it comes to the confiscation of firearms. Requiring police and sheriff departments to sell off ownerless guns reduces the incentive for collecting them in the first place, he said.
Like I said, this was an hour-long culture clash. Of epic proportions, as it turned out.