Published Monday, March 18, 2013
BY RAY HENRY
ATLANTA (AP) – A push to expand gun owners' rights in Georgia has exposed a political gap between the long-powerful National Rifle Association and a more strident group seeking to expand where people can carry weapons.
In such a gun-friendly state, the NRA has recently pursued changes to the state's firearms laws that likely affect small groups of people. For example, one would allow people to hunt with silencers, while another makes clear people in public housing can own guns.
But on March 7, House lawmakers at the urging of a gun owners' group called GeorgiaCarry.Org approved more sweeping legislation. It would allow people with a license to take their firearms into bars and churches, as well as on college campuses - despite the protests of college administrators. It would allow school districts to arm their employees and would relax restrictions keeping some mentally ill people from legally carrying a weapon.
State lawmakers must now decide which proposal, if any, to support before the end of their annual session on March 28. Friction between gun groups has thwarted common goals before. Last year, state lawmakers scolded the Tennessee Firearms Association after its leader sent out a newsletter blaming a GOP legislator for difficulties passing a bill that would have allowed employees to keep guns in their cars over the objections of employers. The newsletter said it was time to symbolically "display a used crucifix at the entrance to the General Assembly as a warning."
Tennessee lawmakers passed a more limited version of the bill this year after House Speaker Beth Harwell persuaded fellow Republicans to ignore the demands of what she called "fringe" gun groups. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law on Friday.
NRA representatives did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The vice president of GeorgiaCarry.Org, John Monroe, said he believes the U.S. Constitution gives people a right to carry weapons with limited exceptions. Monroe said he carries a pistol for the same reason he takes other precautionary steps.
"The same reason I have a fire extinguisher in my garage and I have insurance on my car," he said. "I hope nothing bad ever happens, but if it does, I want to take steps to mitigate the damage."
GeorgiaCarry.Org's plan faces political difficulties, however. Senate Republicans have a more moderate voting record than their House counterparts. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who rarely comments on pending legislation, said through his spokesman that he supports part of the House plan, perhaps signaling that he has problems with other aspects. Furthermore, judges and leaders at the state's public colleges and universities have strongly opposed the measure.
Still, Republican lawmakers will face political pressure to pass some of form of a gun rights bill.
While the NRA has not openly criticized GeorgiaCarry.Org, its lobbyist has stayed clear of the House plan. It has not sought to combine the gun-related measures, a step sometimes taken by groups seeking a common goal.
The NRA's proposal would probably result in fewer practical changes, if passed. Some are significant, for example, a provision requiring that Georgia recognize licenses to carry guns issued by other states. The remaining items would probably have more limited effects. Those younger than 21 could get a license to carry a weapon if they had military training. It would eliminate state licensing requirements for firearms dealers who are already overseen by the U.S. government. Local governments could not ban those living in public housing from having a gun. As best the bill sponsor can tell, none in Georgia currently do.
GeorgiaCarry.Org has found more support in the state's House of Representatives, which leans more conservative than the Senate. Leading Republicans backed the bill, from the GOP majority leader to Rep. John Meadows, who chairs a powerful committee that decides which bills get a floor vote.
"... I never forget nothing, and it's taken me a long time to learn to forgive some people," Meadows said, a not-so-subtle warning ahead of the floor vote.
A few House Republican leaders are snipping at the NRA. On Wednesday, Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, publicly quizzed NRA lobbyist Raymon White on whether his group supported GeorgiaCarry.Org's bill. Powell is a co-sponsor of the GeorgiaCarry.Org legislation.
"Uh, yes. We support -," White said.
"Well, I noticed you all were noticeably absent during all the hours of testimony," Powell responded, adding he was glad both gun groups got on the same side. White tried to explain further.
"We decided to split it up this year. They chose a path and we," answered White, who was then cut off.
AP reporter Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
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