ATLANTA — A bill allowing Georgia residents to carry handguns in public without a license or background check neared final passage Wednesday, meaning Republican Gov. Brian Kemp will deliver on his promise of "constitutional carry" as he seeks reelection this year.
The House passed Senate Bill 319, sending it back to the Senate to approve minor changes before Kemp can sign it into law.
The governor initially promised the measure when he first ran for governor in 2018, but little was done to advance it. It's been revived now that Kemp faces opposition in this year's primary from former U.S. Republican Sen. David Perdue and others. Longtime proponents of gun rights have credited Kemp's advocacy for moving the issue forward.
Republicans say the measure is needed to allow people to more easily protect themselves from crime. They also argue that requiring a carry permit, which costs about $75, infringes on Second Amendment gun rights.
"It just removes the fee that citizens in the state have to pay to be able to exercise their Second Amendment rights," said Rep Mandi Ballinger, a Canton Republican.
Democrats say the measure will encourage more gun use, which in turn will fuel more shooting deaths, increase crime and put police officers' lives in danger.
"We know from multiple studies that there is a direct correlation between weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun deaths, including suicides, homicides and accidental killings," said Rep. Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat. "And in a moment in which so many Georgians are suffering and facing mental health crises after such a challenging period of time, why are we making it easier to get a gun in the state of Georgia?"
Georgia currently requires people to obtain a license to carry a loaded handgun outside their own homes, businesses or cars, although people can carry rifles and shotguns in many places without a permit and carry unloaded weapons in gun cases.
To obtain a weapons license, residents must submit an application and fee and undergo fingerprinting in addition to a background check. Convicted felons and people who have been hospitalized for mental health problems or received treatment for drugs or alcohol in the years preceding the application aren't eligible.
Democrats said the process leads to thousands of people with criminal records or mental illness being denied licenses each year in Georgia.
"Georgia needs more gun safety laws, not fewer," said Rep. Shea Roberts, an Atlanta Democrat. "No law can stop all dangerous behavior. But why would we want to make criminals feel more comfortable carrying in public, knowing they can now freely carry, no questions asked?"
Republicans, though, argue that people will still have to pass a federal background check to buy a gun. The permits will still exist, as well, they say, because they allow people to carry guns outside Georgia under interstate agreements.
"You want to protect yourself," said Rep. J. Collins, a Villa Rica Republican. "Why should you have to go to a court and get a permit to protect yourself? That's all this bill is about."
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