Rep. Michelle Au, left, presents her gun storage bill. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Rep. Michelle Au (left) presents her gun storage bill in the Georgia House of Representatives during the 2023 legislative session.

Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

A Georgia House subcommittee heard testimony on a bill aimed at punishing gun owners who negligently allow firearms to fall into the hands of unsupervised children.

The bill, authored by Johns Creek Democratic Rep. Michelle Au, is not moving forward this year, but Au said getting the Republican-led Georgia House Public Safety & Homeland Security 2-A Subcommittee to hear it was a win in itself.

“Gun safety legislation traditionally does not get heard in the Georgia state Legislature, so the fact of a hearing at all is a huge first step,” she said. “So I really give a lot of credit to Chairman (Steven) Sainz and Chairman (J.) Collins for giving us this hearing and giving us this time because they didn’t have to do that.”

House Bill 161 would make it a crime to allow a gun to get into the hands of an unsupervised child. If it became law, it would be a high and aggravated misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 to allow a child access to a gun if the child fires it and injures or kills someone.

There would be exceptions, including if the child was being supervised by an adult for hunting or sport shooting, if the child stole the gun in a robbery or if the child shot someone in lawful self-defense.

Au, a physician, cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report finding firearms were the No. 1 cause of death for children and teens in 2020. She said 23 states have similar laws, and cited research suggesting that mandating safe storage could reduce juvenile shooting deaths by more than 50%.

Au compared the bill to Georgia’s car seat laws, which she said save young lives without onerous enforcement.

“The specifics of car seat laws are ingrained with parents,” she said. “You don’t leave the hospital with a newborn, as many of us know, without demonstrating, bringing it into the hospital, that you have an appropriate car seat. At every single well child check that you go to with a pediatrician, we discuss and reinforce vehicular safety and the law, and if an adult is observed to be driving with an unsecured child and not in a car seat or improperly secured, they are stopped and cited.”

“What HB 161 would do is to clearly define the parameters of safe storage and, again, create this culture of gun safety where such storage practices are the norm,” she added. “And this more easily allows us to teach outliers what responsible gun ownership looks like.”

The hearing grew emotional at times as doctors and family members of people killed by firearms spoke. Dr. Sofia Chaudhary, an Atlanta pediatric urgent care physician, said she has seen countless children killed or maimed by improperly stored guns. She described one such incident:

“I will never forget the sound of his mother screaming,” she said. “I will never forget how she collapsed while holding on to a small, blood-stained hand. As a mother of a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, I think often of this beautiful little curly-haired boy and how his family’s life changed in a matter of moments. And that’s all it takes, moments, for a young child to find an unlocked gun in a drawer, under the bed, in a closet, even when parents may be close by, this is not an unusual incident.”

Chaudhary said 244 Georgia children died from a gun in 2021.

Most of the dozen or so speakers supported the bill, but two did not, including Alex Dorr, political director for advocacy at Georgia Gun Owners.

Dorr said mandating storage lockers or trigger guards could waste precious time in a home invasion scenario.

“Glass is shattered as an armed thug is breaking your home bent on rape, robbery, and murder,” he said. “With HB 161, you now have to deal with your wife screaming, your children coming out of the room asking what’s going on, you have to find your way through the dark to your gun safe, remember the code — don’t type in the wrong one, mine takes 5 seconds to reset — or find the key, open your safe, find your gun, load your gun, and all while in the complete pitch dark while this armed thug has gained entry into your home.”

“If you’re like most law-abiding Georgians, you’d probably just reach over and grab your handgun — or in my case, my AR pistol with a stocked pistol brace,” he added. “I’ll go do what needs to be done to defend my family.”

Dorr said he was speaking on behalf of “our tens and thousands of members across the state that have delegated me to come here today to tell you how foolish HB 161 is.”

Claudia Fruin, a retired pediatrician who said she became a gun safety advocate after the Sandy Hook shooting, said Dorr does not speak for gun owners like her.

“Half of Georgians are gun owners, but they may not admit to it,” she said. “They may not admit to it because being a true gun owner nowadays has come to mean you have an arsenal of weapons or you have an assault rifle or you’re screaming at the top of your lungs about your Second Amendment right to bear arms, and you may spread false rumors that your guns are going to be confiscated if any safety measures are passed, but these messages are not the reality of most gun owners. Most of us believe in safe storage laws whether we have one gun or whether we have a hundred guns, whether we’re Republican or whether we’re Democrats.”

Dorr did not agree.

“GGO will be sure to expose anyone who supports this bill, and that goes doubly true for any Republicans who betray us, but I’m very hopeful that that’s not the case here today,” he said.

Dorr needn’t have worried.

Savannah Republican Rep. Jesse Petrea said he appreciated the conversation, but would rather focus on fighting crime.

Rep. Jesse Petrea. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Rep. Jesse Petrea.

Credit: Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder

“The real problem with death and calamity in our community are violent felons who continue to be back on the street again and and again and again,” he said. “That is why our people are suffering, violent men across this state. And every time we try to hold them accountable here in this body, the other side votes no, and I, for the life of me, can’t understand that. And so I’d love for us to address all of these issues, especially the one that is exponentially more problematic.”

Public Safety & Homeland Security Chair J. Collins, a Villa Rica Republican, thanked participants for their passion but did not find favor with the bill.

“I don’t think this piece of legislation is the answer to solving a lot of the problems that we see,” he said. “I think the answer to solving the problems that we see and we face are conversations like this, and to try to cultivate the common ground that we all have, and that is the safety for our children and the safety of our communities. While I simply granted a hearing to this bill, this bill will not be moving forward, obviously, it’s after Crossover Day, but I wanted to have a conversation and to allow (the speakers) to present to the committee and to start the conversation.”

Speaking after the hearing, Collins said threats of retribution from gun lobbyists like Dorr do not factor into his decisions.

“I appreciate the opinions that were thrown around in the room and expressed, that’s very important as far as the legislative process goes,” he said. “As far as being threatened for looking at the safety of our state and the safety of children, that’s not something I really am concerned about.”

Au also said she looks forward to continuing the conversation and is not concerned with the gun lobby influencing her Republican colleagues.

“If you look at national polling, you can see that gun safety is a tremendously important issue for most people, and the vast majority of Americans across the country are really interested in gun safety legislation,” she said. “So this threat of saying that people who support gun safety legislation will lose their elections does not bear out in the data, and it has not borne out in the recent elections. So they can certainly try, but people can make their own decisions on who to vote for, and they can listen to both sides of the argument, and I think that our side of the argument was very reasoned and common sense.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.