SMYRNA — Facing an unusual challenge from fellow Republicans in his bid for a second term, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday he will push for a new state law that would loosen requirements to carry a handgun in public.
Kemp made the announcement at a gun shop in the Atlanta-area city of Smyrna that bills itself as the "world's largest gun store," where he was joined by members of the National Rifle Association and state lawmakers.
Kemp did not lay out specific changes he was seeking but expressed support for what gun rights advocates call "constitutional carry." Multiple bills purporting to advance that idea in the state Legislature would do away with the need for a license to carry a handgun in public — either openly or concealed on one's body. The current license requirement includes a background check.
"Building a safer, stronger Georgia starts with hardworking Georgians having the ability to protect themselves and their families," Kemp said. "In the face of rising violent crime across the country, law-abiding citizens should have their constitutional rights protected, not undermined."
The move drew condemnation from gun safety advocates and the campaign of Kemp's likely Democratic opponent in this year's governor's race, Stacey Abrams.
Kemp emphasized his support for the 2nd Amendment during his first campaign for governor, appearing in multiple ads with shotguns, including one in which he brandished a shotgun at an actor playing a suitor of one of his daughters.
"The same guy who pointed a gun at a teenager on TV now panders with reckless proposals threatening Georgia lives," Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said in a tweet. "As her opponents run to dangerous extremes and fight desperately to salvage their political careers, @staceyabrams is fighting for Georgians and their safety."
More than 20 other states allow concealed weapons in public without a permit, according to Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action said the laws "significantly hinder law enforcement's ability to prevent people with dangerous histories — including extremists and white supremacists with criminal histories — to carry firearms, putting public safety in jeopardy."
Courtney Spriggs, a volunteer leader with the group, accused Kemp ahead of the announcement of playing "political games that could cost Georgians their lives."
Kemp endorsed "constitutional carry" during his first campaign, but has been less vocal about the policy since taking office. He failed to mention the issue in his 2019, 2020 or 2021 State of the State speeches, when governors urge their top priorities on lawmakers.
He said Wednesday he has been fulfilling campaign promises while also dealing with the pandemic and needed the legislature to pass a constitutional carry bill before he could sign it. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has indicated he is open to some form of permitless carry legislation this year after setting aside a gun-related bill in the closing hours of the regular session last year, saying it was too soon after the shooting deaths of eight people at massage businesses in metro Atlanta.
But one of Kemp's Republican challengers, former U.S. Senator David Perdue, has identified "constitutional carry" as a top issue and slammed Kemp for failing to deliver it. With support from former President Donald Trump, Perdue announced in December that he was entering the governor's race. Perdue lost his Senate seat to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a January 2021 runoff.
He and another Republican challenging Kemp, Vernon Jones, criticized the governor ahead of Wednesday's announcement.
"I'm glad Brian Kemp is answering my call for constitutional carry in Georgia," Perdue tweeted late Monday. "But real leaders lead from the start – and it's time Georgia had a Governor who shows principled leadership when it matters most."
Kemp appeared to clap back, saying in his remarks at the gun shop that the view that people have the right to carry a firearm without state approval "has recently become popular for others as we enter campaign season."
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 guns in cases.
To obtain a weapons license, state 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 are not eligible.
One key question, if licenses are abolished, is what the state would do, if anything, to try to prevent convicted felons and people with mental illness from carrying handguns outside.
Republican state Sen. Jason Anavitarte of Dallas, co-sponsor of one of the "constitutional carry" bills, said people want the policy passed.
"It's our inherent Second Amendment right to carry without having a license," he said.