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Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 2:04pm

Gun Bill Protects Georgia's GOP from Tea Party Challenge

Georgia’s controversial gun bill was signed into law Wednesday at an American Legion pavilion in Ellijay. And not a moment too soon for House Speaker David Ralston, who faces a serious primary challenger in less than a month.

The Blue Ridge Republican presided over the bill-signing ceremony Wednesday for the gun measure, even though Gov. Nathan Deal would normally be the star of such an event. Deal quickly left for other bill-signings while Ralston worked the crowd, took pictures by the nearby Coosawattee River and didn’t leave a single hand unshaken.

In conversation Wednesday, he admitted candidly that he has something to prove. Ellijay is Ralston country and many of the hundreds of attendees at the gun bill signing sported blue and white stickers bearing his name. But the man who’s Georgia’s second most powerful Republican acknowledged that maybe not everyone headed to the polls on May 20 thinks so.

Ralston faces opposition from Sam Snider, a high school wrestling coach who’s built grass-roots support.

“He’s got the Tea Party behind him and Ralston is not taking this lightly,” said AJC columnist Jim Galloway on GPB-TV's On The Story. “He has a TV ad out. He is spending a great deal of money. He just finished a round of three debates with his opponents. We’ve talked about how some candidates in strong positions decide not to debate. But Ralston is going toe to toe with this guy.”

In comments Wednesday at the bill-signing ceremony, Ralston sought to burnish his legacy in the eyes of conservative voters, and remind them he’s been fighting for them and their interests.

“I want you to know, as long as I’m the Speaker in this state, that no law-abiding citizen will ever have to run and hide from a bad guy,” he said to applause. “House Bill 60 was the result of two years of hard work by legislative leaders who were determined that the Second Amendment rights of the people of Georgia would not be jeopardized or threatened or restricted by executive orders coming out of Washington, D.C. or rhetoric or money by liberal special interest groups.”

He was also widely quoted as saying, “This is the apple capitol of Georgia. And yes, this is a community where we cling to religion and guns.”

And in many ways, the so-called ‘guns everywhere’ bill was Ralston’s bill. Even before the session began, he made it clear passing a gun bill was part of his agenda. Deal, on the other hand, made it equally clear it wasn’t on his agenda.

When in the final minutes of the session a gun measure did pass, Ralston hailed it as “important” and intimated he wasn’t going to be satisfied unless they left with some kind of firearms bill.

When it becomes law on July 1, the legislation will lift restrictions on firearms in many churches, schools, bars and government buildings. The bill will also bar sheriffs from asking someone with a gun if he or she has a license. Under the new bill, school boards would have the option of deciding if teachers or administrators should be armed. It outlaws a database of gun owners, and nixes fingerprinting for license renewals.

But July 1 is still far away. The primary, on the other hand, is 26 days away. Ralston and Deal both know how tenacious and reliable the core Republican electorate headed to the primaries can be, especially in North Georgia. One potential voter on hand Wednesday, Gary Ely of Cumming, said he called the Governor every week to ask him to support the gun bill.

“It’s a big bill,” he said in an interview before Deal signed the bill. “It sends a message.”

A message that Deal and Ralston both hope will translate into votes at the ballot box.