Midstate government officials grapple with gun bill

Deal expected to sign HB 60 into law Wednesday

Telegraph staffApril 22, 2014 

Signs posted at each entrance to Warner Robins City Hall proclaim the carrying of firearms “upon these premises is strictly prohibited” under state law. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected Wednesday to sign a bill that would upend that law, allowing guns in most government offices.

That’s thrown some local and state officials into a tizzy, as they worry about more guns in public buildings or curbing law enforcement’s ability to check if those guns are licensed.

House Bill 60 requires guns be allowed in government buildings where there isn’t a security screening. That keeps most courthouses off-limits to guns, but other government offices -- from city halls to far-flung tax collectors offices -- would either have to allow guns inside or put a big bill for security upon taxpayers. It also lifts a blanket ban on guns in houses of worship and bars and lets each one decide on their own weapons policy. Schools could allow employees and other people to carry weapons. If signed, the law would become effective in July.

Crawford County Manager Pat Kelly said he’d like to be able to have his own firearm with him when he’s handling money. But when told of the new law, Kelly didn’t know how it would actually shake out in Crawford County, where many -- but not all -- government offices are in a building shared among agencies.

“We might have a little conflict in this building due to uniqueness, due to there’s a Head Start complex down the hall,” Kelly said.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert signed a letter against a different gun control bill with a similar provision to what’s in HB 60.

“Local officials are best suited to determine public safety needs. By conditioning our authority to keep guns out of municipal and county buildings on the costly provision of security personnel, this bill would prohibit us from making the decisions we deem necessary to keep our employees and citizens safe,” reads the letter from Mayors Against Illegal Guns that Reichert signed.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday what Macon-Bibb County would do if HB 60 is signed. Reichert last year proposed higher security for what was then called City Hall, with commissioners and employees getting electronic cards for access and a metal detector to screen the general public. Many of the government operations take place in scattered buildings, from Central City Park to a tax commissioners office in the Macon Farmers Market.

The Macon-Bibb County Attorney’s Office is reviewing the bill, while the county is reviewing security, said spokesman Chris Floore. Warner Robins Mayor Randy Toms told The Telegraph Monday he’d had a meeting that day to discuss the impact, but no decisions had been made.

Loss of local control a concern

The Georgia Municipal Association, a club for the state’s 538 cities, asked Deal to veto HB 60.

“This legislation will strain municipal budgets through increased costs of security, training and frivolous litigation,” reads the letter to Deal from GMA Executive Director Lamar Norton.

GMA believes the bill covers city halls, libraries, recreation centers, city office buildings and fire stations. Norton’s letter said local governments should decide weapons policy for each of their buildings since they’re the ones who pay for insurance and law enforcement.

But HB 60 limits that power, in GMA’s interpretation, by requiring pricey screening at the door of all such buildings if cities want to try and keep guns out.

The bill erases the distinction between licensed and unlicensed carriers, Norton’s letter argues, because it also ends law enforcement’s authority to verify weapons carry licenses.

“That will become a major problem,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, because it will apply to all people who carry guns, not just the ones headed to church on Sunday.

“If I see a thug on the corner with a pistol in his waistband ... if I get out and ask the thug for a (weapons carry) license, they cay say, ‘Screw you, sheriff,’ and walk away,” under the new law, said Sills.

It’s an unintended consequence, he reckons, of the use of the word “detention” in HB 60. It says law enforcement cannot detain anyone just to inspect a weapons carry license. Georgia case law, he said, defines something as minor as grabbing a person’s arm as detention.

Then the next consequence, Sills said, is criminal defendants successfully claiming illegal detention to suppress any evidence -- like drugs -- found on them after a request to see a gun license.

Gun advocate says worries ‘misplaced’

When Kelly Burke was Houston County’s district attorney, he worked with grand juries to review security in government buildings. Now a private attorney who has more than 3,300 people in his Houston County Carries Concealed group on Facebook, Burke thinks government officials’ worries about HB 60 are misplaced. Burke said there’s no way to know, right now, if a “bad guy” with a gun is walking through Warner Robins City Hall.

“All the new law is going to do is allow the good guys to have a gun and to protect themselves and potentially others, in an environment in which only the bad guys had the guns,” Burke said.

Warner Robins City Hall has a police officer assigned to it, but no screening takes place.

Burke said the city shouldn’t try to screen people at City Hall and noted how many other buildings would be affected.

“I think that’s silly. And then the question is, are you going to do that at the rec department? Are you going do that at the water treatment plant? There’s government buildings all over the place. Are you going to do it everywhere? Where are you going to draw the line?” he asked Tuesday.

Those are the same questions being asked by Beth English, president of the Georgia Municipal Association. She’s mayor pro-tem of Vienna, where a low estimate of security costs mostly to secure City Hall would be $60,000. It would take an increase of more than 1 mill of property tax to raise that kind of money in the Dooly County city.

“I guess you could always go back to the wild, wild West, but, you know, they checked their guns with the sheriff, too,” she said. “... I really have a problem with a world that’s about shooting back all the time, you know?”

She said she didn’t know whether the city would put security in place, allow weapons to be openly carried or allow employees to arm themselves. A gun owner herself, she thinks HB 60 is a mistake that may prove costly to local governments stripped of control by state legislators.

County officials’ opinions vary

Counties will have to make the same decisions as cities under HB 60. And the 159 counties vary greatly on what they think of the bill, according to their organization, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

For that reason, the organization is stepping aside from taking a position on the completed measure. Though during the legislative session, the group did lobby for local control of weapons-carry laws in its members’ public buildings and the right of law enforcement to see weapons carry licenses.

Both the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and Georgia Municipal Association say the bill opens governments up to what they fear will be frivolous litigation brought by people or organizations alleging local limitations on state weapons laws.

Telegraph archives were used in this report. To contact writer Maggie Lee, email mlee@macon.com. To contact writer Mike Stucka, email mstucka@macon.com or call 744-4251.

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