In the same session that lawmakers have pledged to tackle a rise in violent crime being seen across the state, a Senate committee passed a bill loosening gun carrying requirements.

Senate Bill 319 — known as constitutional carry — would allow Georgians to carry a concealed handgun without first obtaining a license. The proposal passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines late Tuesday.

Under the bill, any “lawful weapons carrier” could carry a concealed firearm without first going through the licensing process that usually requires a fingerprint, background check and $75 fee.

The bill defines a “lawful weapons carrier” as “any person who is not prohibited by law” from carrying a weapon — excluding Georgians with prior drug convictions, felony convictions or charges and those treated for mental health or substance abuse issues within five years.

Proponents of the bill argued the change would simply do away with a layer of extra paperwork for Georgians who are already legally allowed to carry a weapon and would otherwise be allowed to conceal their firearm after going through the licensing process.

Dallas Republican State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, the lead sponsor, testified that concealed carry without a permit would deter criminal activity.

Permitless carry gives criminals a reason to fear that any potential victim could be armed and thus de-incentivizes criminals from conduct,” he said Tuesday. “Basically, in short, I know there's going to be discussion that this law has the potential to just put off all sorts of new guns and weapons on the streets. And I'll tell you, that's patently false.”

Georgians would still not be allowed to carry concealed weapons in places where carrying is not allowed such as government buildings and airports.

Enthusiastic gun rights advocates applauded the measure during committee testimony and said the push for permitless carry has been years in the making. 

Gov. Brian Kemp vowed to make permitless carry a legislative priority this session as part of a string of efforts to woo conservative voters. Kemp faces a bitter primary challenge from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who has the backing of former President Donald Trump.

A recent poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that nearly 70% of Georgians oppose legislation that would do away with Georgia’s concealed carry licensing process.

Democrats decried the effort and argued that the proposal would only worsen the state’s spike in violent crime.

Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, pointed to recent gun violence tragedies in the metro area, including that of 6-month-old Grayson Fleming-Gray, who died after being caught in the crossfire of a shootout in northwestern Atlanta.

How would this legislation, which removes a check on criminals getting guns and being lawfully able to carry them,” she asked, “help these people who are dying every day from random stray bullets?”

Parent cited a statistic from the Council of Probate Judges in Georgia: In 2020, more than 5,000 people were denied weapons carry licenses — mainly for criminal history.

But under the bill, background checks are still required when purchasing from a store or dealer.

The bill puts the law-abiding, legal gun owners on a level playing field with criminals to make our communities more safe,” Anavitarte said. “If we want to deter crime and take the weapons out of the [hands of] bad guys and gang members and those committing crimes, then we should invest in law enforcement in the state.”

The bill must move through the Senate Rules committee before it makes it to the chamber floor for a vote.