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Gun law changes still undecided as legislature enters final week
Bulloch delegation supports HB 512
WBurns Jon cmyk
Rep. Jon Burns

Discussion on guns
    The Bulloch County Democratic Party  will host a public “Guns & Politics” discussion at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Statesboro Regional Library.

    Two weeks ago, all three of Bulloch County’s representatives in the Georgia House voted for a bill that would allow appropriately licensed residents to carry guns into churches, bars and university classrooms. The next few days will tell what, if any, of its provisions become law this year.
    Reps. Butch Parrish, Jon Burns and Jan Tankersley, all Republicans and representing, respectively, the 158th, 159th and 160th districts, went into the “yes” column when the House of Representatives voted on House Bill 512 on March 7. It passed 117-56 on “Crossover Day,” the last date for a bill approved by the House to move on to the Senate with a chance to become law this year.
    Combining several gun-related bills, HB 512 also included other things, such as changes to clarify when treatment for mental illness bars citizens from getting gun-carry licenses and how long probate judges have to issue them. But it was the church, bar and college provisions that attracted the most attention.
    “Yes, I did vote for it because we are a Second Amendment rights state and I do feel that people do have a right to carry, but there are guidelines in place,” Tankersley said.
    Interviewed Tuesday before driving from her Brooklet home to Atlanta for the restart of the session, Tankersley thought a final bill will probably be enacted before the Legislature adjourns next Thursday night. For that to happen, the House and Senate will have to agree to the same version, and changes were being discussed.
    It’s not a perfect bill, Tankersley said, allowing that the Senate might need to make some amendments.
    “I know there’s a lot of talk about guns being on college campuses, and I’m not real comfortable with that,” she said. “It is in there.”

College classrooms
    In hearings prior to the House vote, legislators heard testimony about college students’ desire to carry guns for self-protection, especially to evening classes on urban campuses such as Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University in Atlanta. But the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents and some university administrators voiced opposition, arguing that more guns increase dangers on campus.
    As Tankersley noted, the legal ability to carry guns on public university and college campuses would be limited to students at least 21 years old, the minimum for a license to carry a gun. Acquiring a license like anyone else, they would be fingerprinted and undergo a background check meant to ensure that the applicant is not a felon or facing felony prosecution and has not been hospitalized for mental illness in the last five years.
    Guns would still be prohibited at college athletic events, in sorority and fraternity houses, and in college-owned residence halls. They are already legal in cars on campus, and possession of a firearm at a private residence does not require a license. But the bill as passed by the House would allow students with licenses to carry concealed weapons to take them to class.
    This wouldn’t apply at private colleges, whose boards and administrators would decide whether to allow guns. House Bill 512 treats private colleges and universities as private property. Several of the lawmakers interviewed said that private property rights are an important idea in the legislation.
    “I think a lot of what 512 does is leaves decisions up to private property rights, local control – the  most basic form of local control, by the individual, maybe a business owner – and those are some of our basic rights, along with the Second Amendment,” Burns said. “I think a balancing act is occurring here.”
    He means balancing the constitutional right to bear arms and the right of owners of private property — including churches, bars and private colleges — to say they don’t want guns on their property. Parrish also mentioned this concept.
    “The thing you need to remember is the that the personal property rights trump the other part,” Parrish said. “If you have a business and you don’t want anybody to carry a weapon into your business, you can post that sign and then they’re violating the law even if they do have a permit.”

    As passed by the House, HB 512 would have removed the existing ban on license holders carrying guns into places of worship. Churches could have opted out, but doing so would require posting signs to that effect. This is one aspect subject to change this week as Rep. Rick Jasperse, the Republican from Jasper who introduced the bill in the House, talked to Senate colleagues about steps that could help win passage there.
    “Our current stance is that we’re going to allow churches to opt in,” Jasperse said Tuesday.
    In other words, a version of the bill suggested for the Senate’s approval would keep the existing ban on guns in force except where specific churches act to allow them.

    A concession also appeared to be in the works from backers of House Bill 512 over lifting the ban on customers carrying guns into bars.
    “It’s going to go back to the original language,” Jasperse said. “Under current law, today, not my bill, a bar owner can choose to allow a license holder to bring a weapon in or not. That’s current law.”
    In a separate interview, Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, pointed out that licensed gun carry is already legal in many places that serve alcoholic beverages. The existing law defines bars, where guns are prohibited, as businesses devoted to serving alcohol where serving food is only incidental.
    “Most bars have long since gone the way of restaurants that serve alcohol, and you can take them in those anyway,” Powell said.

Mental Health

    House Bill 512 replaces a ban on gun licenses for anyone hospitalized for mental illness or substance abuse in the previous five years with a reference to involuntary treatment. Critics have charged that this will weaken safeguards against people with serious mental illness carrying guns.
    But Jasperse asserts that the bill would strengthen the safeguards by making them enforceable. The only records available are those for involuntary treatment, he said, and the new ban applies to involuntary outpatient treatment, as well as involuntary hospitalization.
    The bill also gives law enforcement 30 days to respond to a background check request before a probate judges issues a license. Currently there is no time limit, and Jasperse said the change is designed to speed the process.
    He continues to support the carry provision for college students going to class.
    “Those are rule-following Georgians who’ve been to the trouble to get a license, who’ve done the background check, and they’re following the rules, they’re doing the right thing,” Jasperse said.
    While other members of the local delegation had Monday and Tuesday off, Sen. Jack Hill, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, was already in Atlanta working on the budget. He had not been part of the discussions on the Senate version of the gun bill.
    “All I can say right now is I’m still getting a lot of input on both sides of it,” Hill said. “It’s one of those things that people just disagree on. We’ll have to wait and see what, if anything, comes out of committee.”

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