Debate on a bill to expand gun rights in Georgia dominated Tuesday’s session of the state legislature, even as lawmakers debated dozens of other bills.

The stakes in the gun bill debate are so high that a Republican lawmaker rose to speak against the bill championed by his party – the only member of the GOP to do so. He was one of three Republicans voting against the measure.

After two hours of passionate debate, the House overwhelmingly passed the most sweeping gun rights measure in recent state history. It would, with a few caveats, broadly loosen restrictions to allow Georgians to carry guns in almost any place they go: bars, churches, local government offices and schools.

The bill no longer includes a provision that would have allowed guns on college campuses, although one lawmaker took the unusual step of proposing a last-minute amendment to expand firearm rights to universities. It failed; instead, the measure would decriminalize the act of bringing a gun onto university property so that violators would only face civil penalties and fines.

Let’s take a closer look at what lawmakers on both sides of the gun debate said about the bill.

A Nod To Law-Abiding Gun Owners

The bill’s backers stressed that the measure is for law-abiding Georgians who have obtained a license to carry firearms by agreeing to a background check and fingerprinting. They objected to what they see as the demonization of licensed gun owners, and said this bill takes steps to restore rights granted by the Constitution. And Rick Jasperse, the bill’s sponsor, included churches among those gaining a greater degree of control.

“By moving this, we get government out of churches’ business as 45 other states do now,” the Jasper Republican said. “These churches and bars get to decide what their policy is and do what they choose to enforce it. It’s private property."

He also said gun-free zones only impact law-abiding citizens because criminals disregard laws anyway. He and others also stressed the importance of property rights in any debate about loosening firearm restrictions.

Rep. Dusty Hightower, a Carrollton Republican, spoke of the primacy of the Second Amendment as a means of distinguishing the U.S. from other countries.

“Twenty-seven words set us apart from the rest of the world,” Hightower said.

Rep. Alan Powell, a staunch gun rights supporter, stressed that the law doesn’t require churches to accept guns in the sanctuary. They’ll have the option of keeping them out. And the Hartwell Republican said one person’s second amendment rights stop when they meet the private property rights of another citizen.

But Rep. Charles Gregory said the bill does not go far enough. The Kennesaw Republican said 25,000 of his constituents work and study at Kennesaw State University where, under this bill, they won’t be able to carry guns.

“All are forcibly denied their Second Amendment rights the moment they step on campus,” he said.

Opponents Say It’s All About Currying Votes

Lawmakers opposing the bill invoked a pantheon of issues: school safety, the potent combination of alcohol in bars and firearms, the sanctity of the church, and the fear the bill would pose an unfunded mandate to local governments.

They cited many members of the clergy, student groups, college officials and others who are against it. Much of the opposition stems From simple safety concerns. But local officials are also worried about administrative and financial implications of the bill. And one Democratic lawmaker christened the bill the GOP’s “get-out-the-vote” bill for the elections later this year.

First, let’s hear from the folks who say the bill would dramatically increase violence in Georgia. Those folks are almost all Democrats.

Karla Drenner, an Avondale Estates Democrat and a college professor said simply, "This bill will not make us safer."

Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat, said more than 90 percent of the people in his rural district own guns. But he said that doesn’t mean they want to bring their guns to church or to their children’s schools. Instead, he said the bill was a get-out-the-vote measure designed to drive GOP voters to the polls in November.

“Your college presidents don’t want it, your high school principals don’t want it, the superintendents don’t want it,” he said. “And anyone who ever went to college should know better than to want it.”

A Funeral Director’s Perspective

Williams said guns don’t belong at a place like the University of Georgia, which has been consistently ranked one of the top party schools in the nation.
But possibly the most moving and surprising testimony came Rep. Chuck Sims, the lone Republican to speak against the bill.

A funeral director by trade, the Ambrose Republican began his speech with one simple question.

“How many folks in here have ever seen a body dead from a weapon? Raise your hands,” he said. “How many people in here been shot at?”

No one raised their hand in the silent chamber. He said he supports most of the bill but there are two provisions he can’t abide.

“A gun doesn’t belong in church and a gun doesn’t belong in a bar,” he said. “It just doesn’t. I don’t want to get shot in church. I don’t want to get shot in a bar.”

Safety concerns occasionally gave way to some dollars and cents issues. Democratic lawmakers spoke on behalf of municipal officials who are concerned about the bill’s provision allowing licensed gun owners to take firearms into any public building that doesn’t have metal detectors.

If the bill becomes law, Democrats fear mayors, city councils and county commissions around the state will feel compelled to erect security apparatuses they cannot afford. Local officials are also concerned about a provision in the bill that would give anyone who suspects counties are abridging the law the right to sue.

In the end, Representatives voted 119 to 56 to pass the measure.

Carter Drafts Two Education Bills

As Rep. Williams indicated during the gun debate, the 2014 elections were never far from the action or lawmakers’ thoughts on Tuesday.

To that end, state Senator Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat and a gubernatorial candidate announced plans to file two education-related bills. One would re-instate a certification program for teachers and the other would mandate the Georgia Lottery Corp. up its contribution to the state’s HOPE college scholarship program. Currently, the lottery contributes about 25 percent of its proceeds to fund HOPE and Georgia’s pre-K program. That’s despite the statute legalizing the lottery mandating it give back 35 percent of its revenue to the state.

Carter, the husband of a teacher, has made education the focus of his campaign. And he says Gov. Deal’s defunding of public education is at the center of his poor record.

"It is clear that the single biggest failure of Georgia's current leadership - and the biggest drain on our state's economy - is the dismantling of our education system,” he said at a news conference.

The announcement comes on the heels of his blasting Gov. Nathan Deal Monday over his decision not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He questioned how Deal could back a bill that would shift the power to expand Medicaid from the governor’s office to legislators.

Some question whether politics will prevent Carter’s bills from getting a fair hearing. It’s possible the bills won’t even receive a committee hearing, much less reach the floor for a vote. But Carter said Republicans have voiced support for demanding more from the lottery corporation, for example.

"Georgia voters tolerated a lottery because of the promise of HOPE and now that has become a shell game too," he said.

What’s Next?

The gun rights’ bill now heads to the Senate, where it will face tougher odds of passage. Last year, it failed in the final moments of the session, largely because of the Senate’s intransigence. One of the supporters in the House alluded to the difficulty supporters are likely to face again this year.

“Let’s pass this bill today and let’s demand that the Senate finally obliges,” said Rep. Ed Lindsey, an Atlanta Republican, during the debate.

Lindsey didn’t mention Gov. Nathan Deal. But it is the state’s top official who has pointedly said the gun bill is not part of his agenda. While debate raged in the House, the Governor was at the first meeting of his newly-appointed winter weather taskforce. The 32-person group of weather and emergency management will report back in two months on long-term strategies for dealing with severe winter storms.

Carter, Deal's potential opponent in November, meanwhile, calls himself an NRA Democrat and said tweaking how the bill will impact churches would help win his support.

Your GPB News Now correspondent wouldn’t want to bet on whether the gun bill gets caught up in the drama of the final night of the session. Stay tuned ... Day 30 – the last day a bill can pass one chamber for a chance at final passage – is within sight on March 3rd. And Day 40 will follow close on its heels.