As it stands now, you cannot pack heat while listening to the preacher in a house of God.
But bills in both the state House and Senate aim to change that.
Similar bills filed last year in both chambers would, if enacted, change the locations where weapons could be taken and where they are prohibited. State Rep. Timothy Bearden, R-Villa Rica, is sponsoring House Bill 615, which would make it a crime to take a firearm, knife or explosive into a building that has a courtroom, jail or prison.
It would also remove existing restrictions on bringing a gun to a church or political rally, among other locations. However, you’d be required to have a Georgia firearms license permit, which allows having an open or concealed weapon, in order to have your gun at church.
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“Do I expect that form of the bill will pass?” Bearden asked.
“No. But that’s where I wanted to start. That’s where debate needs to take place.”
The bill’s purpose
Bearden said his bill’s purpose is to clarify the definition of “public gathering” and get a head start on an expected future decision on the Second Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Currently, law states that a public gathering includes, but isn’t limited to, “athletic or sporting events, churches or church functions, political rallies or functions, publicly owned or operated buildings” or places that sell alcohol for on-premises consumption, if the business gets less than 50 percent of its gross sales from food.
“It’s all over the place,” Bearden said. “It could be the definition of the law enforcement officer. It could be the definition of the judge.”
Bearden’s proposed language removes the list of spots where weapons are prohibited. If his bill became law, weapons could be taken into churches and other public places, though he added that a property owner has the right to prohibit people from bringing weapons onto his or her property.
The Villa Rica Republican also pointed to a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the high court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm. A decision on whether that applies to the states hasn’t yet been made.
If the high court decides that it doesn’t, Bearden wants a law already in place.
“The Second Amendment rights and property rights are so entwined,” he said. “That’s an important part of the bill.”
State Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, said he supports the changes, pointing to shootings that have happened in churches as a reason for the bill. However, he added that those allowed to carry weapons to places such as churches should have to meet certain requirements and have a state license.
“The idea is, you don’t allow just anyone to come into a church (with a gun),” Harp said.
In Bearden’s bill, that’s the case. People may have a gun in their home, office or vehicle without a license. If they want to carry it open or concealed anywhere else, they must have one, Bearden said.
Harp said the chances of such a bill passing are good.
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said he has reservations about the changes.
“I think the jury’s still out on opening all these areas to firearms,” Smyre said. “With all that we have on our plate this legislative session, I’m not so sure these bills are going to be top priority.”
Smyre said he wants more clarity on the bills, adding he’s not sure he could support an expansion of existing gun laws.
Smyre also said this year’s concerns likely would focus on the budget and water and transportation issues.
“Certainly, this won’t be one of our top priorities for the session,” he said.
Gun owner’s perspective
John McMullen, owner of Shooters of Columbus, examined House Bill 615 while standing behind the counter of his 4445 Milgen Road business. Looking at the bill as a whole, he likes what he sees.
“I’m responsible for my own defense, and this thing empowers me pretty well,” he said. “Overall, first read, it looks like it’s a bill designed for people to take ownership of their own defense and do so in a reasonable manner.”
McMullen also pointed to church shootings as a reason for allowing guns in houses of worship, and praised the changes to current law the bill proposes, including the removal of numerous “public gathering” spots were guns are currently prohibited.
However, he questioned language prohibiting weapons in a portion of a building with a prison, jail or courthouse, asking whether he’d be allowed to have a gun on a level of the Columbus Government Center without a courtroom.
McMullen called the change allowing a lifetime permit “a watershed.”
A new section added to existing law would prohibit a state employee or officer from seizing a firearm from someone, excepting certain scenarios such as the weapon is evidence in a criminal investigation.
Also, the governor would lose the power to suspend the sale, transfer or transport of firearms when using his emergency powers.
“If that’s true, that’s great,” McMullen said.
House Bill 860 and Senate Bills 281 and 291 also deal with changes to the firearms laws. Senate Bill 291 closely resembles House Bill 615, though it specifically states that a licensed gun holder could have a firearm in his vehicle when picking up or dropping off someone at the airport.
House Bill 860 and Senate Bill 281 add language to existing law that would allow those with firearms licenses to have a gun in a church.
All bills are under consideration this legislative session.