With less than an hour left in the 2014 legislative session, state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, was so beside himself with excitement in anticipation of a new gun bill's approval that he knocked on the House of Representatives' press box glass and made finger guns toward reporters. Soon after, he joined the rest of the bill's supporters in a standing ovation.
State reps weren't rising to their feet to celebrate the expansion of Medicaid or the legalization of medical marijuana (cannabis oil, not the joint rolling stuff) to treat severe conditions such as seizures or cancer. Nope, they were clap happy about a measure that Americans for Responsible Solutions, a prominent national gun control group led by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, dubbed the nation's "most extreme" gun bill. In a state where at least 400,000 residents are uninsured and rural hospitals are shuttering because of the state's refusal to enact a key part of the Affordable Care Act, where parents must watch their children suffer from illness when treatment remains just out of reach because of legislators' inaction, many of our elected leaders are jubilant.
Pardon us for not finding much to celebrate here.
Georgia has the fourth-worst high school graduation rate, the fifth-highest number of uninsured people, and the sixth-worst poverty levels in the nation. But rather than confront the systemic dysfunction that continues to hold Georgia back during the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers spent their time hashing out ways to loosen gun laws in airports, bars, and churches. Because of all the last minute amendments, the bill's full reach remained a mystery to the public, and even many lawmakers, until five days after it passed.
In case you haven't spent the last two weeks staring dumbfounded at the specifics outlined in the measure, which as CL went to press was awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal's signature, here's a rundown of House Bill 60's highlights. It would allow gun owners to carry in bars and churches, provided those establishments permitted it. Non-restricted areas of airports before security checkpoints also got the green light. Public school employees could carry concealed weapons after some laissez-faire training and the blessing of their school districts. The law would allow guns in government buildings without a "peace officer" standing guard. The Capitol, however, is off limits. (Holster those finger guns, Powell!)
Zoning restrictions that regulate where gun dealers can open their doors for business would also be eliminated, overriding cities' and counties' laws — and stepping all over the notion of local control that Georgia Republicans hold so dear. Political observers have argued that HB 60 could open up the state's Stand Your Ground law to a much larger number of people. Gun owners caught carrying firearms without a permit, convicted felons, and those under the influence of alcohol or drugs could invoke the self-defense law when using deadly force. So could anyone who discharges a gun in a place where the weapons are deemed illegal.
Gun license holders renewing their permits need not worry about fingerprints. And hell, why even worry about gun licenses? The bill prevents police officers from asking to check people's permits, anyway.
"I don't think the intent of the bill is to put law enforcement in danger," Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills told the AJC moments after the bill passed. "It is one with devastating potential."
Guns are a distraction. An insulting diversion from the hard truths we are faced with as Georgians on a daily basis. When it comes to improving Georgians' overall quality of life, the bar is low for progress. To start clawing our way up from the bottom of the heap, state lawmakers need to focus on bettering access to education and health care rather than loosening restrictions on guns. That effort must come from both gun-happy Republicans and Democrats like gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Jason Carter, who should've used this moment to take a stand against a backward measure instead of voting for it.
The governor will likely sign the bill into law. Soon, fellow Georgians, you may find yourself in a bar surrounded by drunks with guns, or in the airport waiting for a flight next to someone with a pistol discretely tucked away. Some of you may even smile to yourself and think, "Damn right! From my cold dead hands!" But there's a real possibility that your kids will also be attending some of the worst schools in the nation, and that you still won't have health insurance.
As the legislature came to a close on Sine Die, Blaine Cloud of Smyrna stood on the third floor of the Gold Dome in disbelief. He was part of a small group of parents of children who endure crippling seizures dozens of times a day and who had found some relief through treatments involving cannabis oil. They consoled each other about the failure of the medical marijuana bill. Some discussed moving to Colorado where the drug is legal.
"Please stand up for what's right," Cloud responded when asked what he'd tell lawmakers. "Don't put sick kids in the middle of political issues."
Lawmakers had a number of opportunities to create a real cause for celebration, despite the speedy session. Instead, they gave us the finger(gun).
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