This summer, Georgiacarry.org gathered up several Republican candidates for governor, to quiz them on their attitudes toward firearms.
The gun group is a recent entry into the annual confrontations in the Legislature over where and when licensed Georgians can carry firearms.
But its members are among the state’s most ardent believers in the Second Amendment. Many of them think that, when it comes to defending the right to keep and bear arms, the National Rifle Association has been a tad wimpish.
Georgiacarry’s top priority is the abolition of the state’s ban on weaponry at church assemblies, athletic events, political rallies, on college and school campuses, and in public buildings.
One of August’s great ironies was U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey’s defense of those who carried firearms to fiery town hall meetings where health care reform was debated. In the Marietta congressman’s home state, the practice is illegal.
The politics of packing heat in public places is difficult for Georgia Republicans. While the base is often gung-ho, many strategists worry that the idea of hidden pistols at PTA meetings and prayer services is a middle-class turn-off.
Last week, Georgiacarry kindly provided the audio from that summer panel discussion.
One of the participants was state Rep. Sean Jerguson (R-Holly Springs), a Georgiacarry member, who said he believes so strongly in gun ownership that, when his daughter turned 4 years old, he gave her a “pink .22.” His son was about to turn the same age, and would get a blue one, the lawmaker said.
But the focus was on three candidates for governor: State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, state Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, and Ray McBerry of McDonough. A stand-in appeared for Secretary of State Karen Handel. Libertarian candidate John Mond also attended.
Oxendine told the gun crowd that he thought licensed carriers should be allowed to pack heat “virtually” anywhere – except for courtrooms, prisons and jails.
“I wouldn’t feel bad at all if someone wanted to carry a gun in the Governor’s Mansion. We may go out on the back porch and shoot a few wine bottles or something,” he said.
But drinking while carrying a concealed firearm is a no-no. “Commissioner Oxendine, you’d have to change the no-alcohol policy first,” Scott interjected.
“That will be done the day I’m sworn in, don’t worry,” Oxendine said.
The spokesman for Handel declared that the secretary of state was likewise a strong believer in H.B. 615, sponsored by state Rep. Tim Bearden (R-Villa Rica), which would do away with Georgia’s public assembly restrictions.
The only Republican to disappoint Georgiacarry was Scott, who declared himself a gun enthusiast, but said he couldn’t support a wholesale dismantling of the state’s public assembly law. “I wouldn’t be honest with you if I told you that as governor I was going to let you carry firearms into a high school football game,” Scott said.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal said he could support an end to restrictions on firearms at public gatherings. But Eric Johnson, the former senator from Savannah, was more careful. “It is not something the campaign senses is a principle concern of Georgia voters,” said campaign manager Ben Fry. Jobs and the economy are greater worries.
That kind of division indicates that the issue of gun rights could play a significant role in the Republican primary.
(Among Democratic candidates for governor, DuBose Porter and David Poythress oppose any changes to the state’s rules on public packing. “A family should be able to go to the circus on a Friday night at Phillips Arena and feel confident that their children aren’t sitting next to someone with a loaded .357,” Poythress said. Thurbert Baker and Roy Barnes are more fuzzy.)
Georgiacarry would prefer that the public assembly debate also become a focus of the Legislature when it convenes in January. But this is less likely.
At about the same time that lawmakers gather in Atlanta, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on a Chicago case that could very well determine what restrictions cities and states can place on an individual’s right to carry weaponry.
That will cause many to argue for a postponement of any changes to Georgia’s public assembly laws.
Then there’s the matter of the man who’s no longer running for governor. With his ambition postponed, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Republican leader of the Senate, is under no immediate obligation to cater to gun interests.
Last week, at its fall retreat, the Senate GOP caucus agreed to back S.B. 291, a bill sponsored by state Sen. David Shafer of Duluth. The measure would assert the gun-toting rights of motorists driving up to drop-off/pick-up areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport .
But otherwise, the bill would not tinker with restrictions on firearms in public spaces.
A 2008 bill, passed into law and backed by Georgiacarry, allowed concealed weaponry on MARTA and other forms of public transportation. But a federal judge ruled this spring that Hartsfield would remain off-limits to armed commuters.
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