By Andy Miller and Rebecca Grapevine
As the nation reels from last week’s shooting spree that killed eight in the Atlanta area, a gun rights bill is poised for passage in the Georgia General Assembly.
House Bill 218 got through most of the legislative process before the shootings March 16 at three metro Atlanta massage businesses.
The proposal’s provisions include requiring Georgia to recognize other states’ concealed weapons permits, and buttressing gun rights during declarations of emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
A third part would require government to sell guns collected by law enforcement agencies. The bill also would ease the process of getting a carry permit.
It still must pass on the Senate floor before having the differences between the two chambers’ versions resolved.
The timing of any gun rights bill’s passage – right after the deadly spa shootings – would appear at least awkward. The mass shootings Monday in Colorado, where 10 people died, made the timing issue even trickier.
The General Assembly has just a handful of days of legislating before adjourning.
Coincidentally, the Georgia legislation’s main sponsor, Republican Mandi Ballinger, is from Cherokee County, where the suspect lived and where the first group of victims were located.
The shootings killed eight people at three massage parlors in Cherokee and Fulton counties, and another person was seriously wounded.
Robert Aaron Long, 21, of Woodstock, who authorities say was the lone perpetrator, was apprehended later the same day. Long has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.
Six of the victims were Asian women. Though police say Long claims the motive was not racial, there are growing calls for hate crime charges to be added in the case.
Hours before the shootings, Long had bought a gun from a gun shop in suburban Atlanta, according to a lawyer for the store.
Georgia does not require a waiting period for firearm sales. A buyer who passes a background check can make a purchase immediately.
Influential groups back legislation
The first part of House Bill 218 would expand Georgia’s recognition of gun carry permits from other states.
“Nobody has lower standards than Georgia for a concealed carry permit,” said Ballinger when asked last month at a House committee meeting.
“Woo, go Second Amendment,” Ballinger said then, referring to the part of the U.S. Constitution that cites the “right to bear arms.”
Ballinger did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment about the legislation in the wake of the shootings.
The day after the killings, she spoke to her Georgia House colleagues about them, calling the suspect a “violent, disturbed man.”
Ballinger’s bill is strongly supported by Georgia Carry, a state organization that says it’s the “no-compromise voice for Georgia gun owners.” In fact, Ballinger has been named the best legislator by Georgia Carry twice, according to her official bio.
The NRA also supports the bill. The group cites examples of “anti-gun officials around the country [who] took the opportunity to unilaterally suspend Second Amendment rights by shutting down gun stores and ranges” due to the pandemic as reasons the protections for gun business are needed.
The gun bill would also allow a person from one county to get a carry permit from another.
That would pertain to probate courts, whose judges have said that such licenses have soared to unprecedented levels. House Bill 218 would also allow applications be accepted via mail or online.
Weapons sales have increased in Georgia during the pandemic, as they have in other states. Background checks — a handy if imperfect indicator of gun-buying trends — are way up in Georgia since March of last year.
The checks for Georgia purchases hit record highs last June and July and nearly did so again this past January. Year-to-date FBI numbers from January and February show more than a 50 percent increase over the same time last year.
Gun control efforts stall
The Legislature also had other gun bills introduced, but from the opposite viewpoint.
Those measures were sponsored by female Democratic senators but languished in committees without a hearing – a typical result in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Sen. Sally Harrell (D-Atlanta) sponsored a measure against campus carry. A second gun control bill — aimed at those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses — was sponsored by Sen. Jen Jordan, also an Atlanta Democrat. It got stuck in committee.
And Sen. Michelle Au (D-Johns Creek), a Chinese-American, sponsored a bill that would have required universal background checks.
Au also called for help in the face of anti-Asian-American hate crimes — the day before the massage parlor violence. There have been increasing reports around the nation this year about attacks on Asian-Americans.
“And all I’m asking right now, as the first East Asian state senator in Georgia,” Au said, according to the AJC, “is simply to fully consider us as part of our communities. Recognize that we need help, we need protection, and we need people in power to stand up for us against hate.”
On Friday, Au joined other local Asian-American leaders meeting in Atlanta with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss the shooting spree.
On Sunday night, Au updated her Twitter feed with a plea to Republican state Sen. John Albers to give her universal background check bill a hearing in the Senate Public Safety Committee. Albers represents parts of Cherokee County.
The current version of House Bill 218 includes provisions sought by senators in a separate bill. It passed the Senate Public Safety Committee by a 4-3 vote.
Critics say timing is inappropriate
The gun rights legislation has not attracted much media attention. But gun control advocates express deep concern about it.
Gun violence is “making Georgia a sick state” said Dorothy Leone-Glasser on behalf of the Georgia Coalition for Safe Communities.
The bill before the Legislature is a case of “ill-timing, particularly when our state is grieving this horrendous hate crime,” she said two days after the shootings. “This is not the time to be expanding the carrying of weapons.”
According to Leone-Glasser, the idea of a waiting period that might have prevented the shootings is politically a non-starter in Georgia, given “the political climate and the [Republican] majority under the Dome.”
Over the past week, the shootings have clearly had a profound effect on the Atlanta area, and Cherokee County in particular.
Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican who represents part of Cherokee County, said in the wake of the killings that the county was “appalled right now that anyone would target [people for death], regardless of the business, regardless of the ethnicity.”
“Cherokee County is a great place to live and work and we will not tolerate this kind of activity,’’ Thompson added.
The Legislature will conclude this year’s session March 31. The fate of the gun rights bill is up in the air.
Jerry Henry of Georgia Carry said Monday that HB 218 has “a good chance of passing,” and that he expects it to come up for a vote Thursday or next Monday.
“They can make things [happen] really quick down there. It can be done,” he said.
Rebecca Grapevine is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Georgia. She has written about public health in both India and the United States, and she holds a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan.