‘Guns everywhere’ law perplexes midstate governments

Staff reportJune 29, 2014 

ap_no_guns

AP’s Hidden Hideaway bartender Sue Lord holds one of three signs the popular south Macon gathering spot plans to display soon in an effort to rein in gun-toters who might be tempted to mix their freedoms. Bar owner Alice Padgett said, “You just don’t put guns and drinking together.”

BEAU CABELL/THE TELEGRAPH — bcabell@macon.com Buy Photo

If you’re headed to get a car tag or attend a government meeting Tuesday, don’t be surprised to find yourself standing near someone strapped with a pistol.

That’s the day House Bill 60, which critics have dubbed the “guns everywhere” law, goes into effect.

The “everywhere” part is not quite accurate, though. Business owners, for example, retain the right to declare their property gun-free zones. Local governments, however, do not.

Unless there is security screening in place, anyone with a carry permit can walk into a local government building packing heat and no one can say boo about it -- or even ask to see their permit.

Local governments have to decide whether to pony up significant money to maintain security checkpoints in buildings, or to get used to seeing people carrying guns into city hall.

So far, most Middle Georgia governments have opted to take no action.

“We haven’t made any plans to do anything different than what we are doing,” said Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker.

For now, the only Houston County building with a security check at the door is the main courthouse in Perry. Stalnaker said he expects it would cost at least a half-million dollars or more to provide security checks at all county buildings.

Stalnaker said he doesn’t have any particular concerns about the law, but he wants to see how it works before deciding whether to push for any changes during the next General Assembly session.

“We are definitely going to be monitoring it,” he said.

The county is reviewing its personnel policies and is consulting with its attorney to see if changes need to be made to allow county workers to bring guns to work. The policy does not allow that now.

Some Houston County communities are contemplating only small changes. Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth helped devise a new policy that blocks most employees from bringing weapons to work. Warner Robins Mayor Randy Toms is interested in looking at something similar.

Toms said the city has no plans to change anything, though it will continue reviewing the law and its effects.

“There are some concerns, and we’re also mindful of people’s rights,” he said.

Perry’s other change was to get employees to request a police officer at sporting events where children and firearms would be present.

“If someone showed up with a weapon at one of our athletic events, then if we didn’t already have a police officer there, one of our officers would be called just to be there, not to approach them or anything -- just a presence,” Faircloth said.

Macon-Bibb complies but wants changes

In Macon-Bibb County, the reaction is muted -- at least for now.

Officials have had general talks with department heads, and a legal memo is forthcoming on what is allowed in public buildings, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said.

“There still seem to be a lot of questions, so that’s why we’re taking our time putting this together,” he said.

The law exempts courthouses, whether there is a security check or not. One needed clarification is whether the exemption covers all of the Macon-Bibb County Government Center -- the former Macon City Hall -- or just the floor that contains Municipal Court.

In the longer term, officials are working on a comprehensive security plan for public facilities, assistant county manager Steve Layson said. He’s meeting with Bibb County Sheriff David Davis to discuss it.

“I think fairly soon we should have a security plan that we can put in place here at (the government center),” Layson said.

So far, that hasn’t included pricing X-ray machines or metal detectors, but the government already has some security equipment on hand.

Controlling public access, whether for general security or in response to the new gun law, will require paying for permanent security stations in the affected buildings, Davis has said.

Floore said the new law will impact what the consolidated government’s security plan will look like.

One point of uncertainty is the impact on non-office buildings such as City Auditorium, the Macon Coliseum and the convention center.

If officials want to justify banning guns from places such as the auditorium, they’ll have to move a government office into each of those buildings and pay for a screening checkpoint, metal detector or X-ray machines, and trained security officers to staff them, assistant county attorney Crystal Jones said.

A number of performers and promoters don’t want weapons allowed into their events, said Mark Butcher, general manager of the Macon Marriott City Center, which also oversees the attached coliseum and convention center.

One act that’s looking at the Macon Coliseum has already requested that no weapons be allowed, he said. If that can’t be honored, the coliseum could lose $50,000 in business from that concert alone.

Floore said that so far there has been no formal talk of moving specific offices into those performance venues.

The Macon-Bibb commission unanimously approved a resolution stating formal opposition to House Bill 60. It was sent to the local legislative delegation, accompanied by a letter that says the city-county government is concerned about the expense and possible legal problems of maintaining a “firearm free environment” in public buildings.

A meeting with legislators is set for July 15.

“They’re going to hear from us as to what problems we see the city-county having with the gun law,” Commissioner Elaine Lucas said.

The new law’s ramifications were a hot topic at a recent Georgia Municipal Association conference. Organization members were told to follow their attorneys’ advice closely, because the law has so many ambiguities.

“I just think there’s got to be some more clarification,” Lucas said.

Peach chairman might start packing

Peach County Commission Chairman Melvin Walker said he left it up to the sheriff to determine whether additional security measures need to be put in place there. The commission office is in a separate building from the courthouse, which has a security check. As of now, when the law goes into effect Tuesday, permit holders will be able to walk into the commissioners’ office with a gun, and that includes commission meetings.

Walker does not carry a gun, but the new law has him thinking maybe he should.

“You almost have to consider it, and that’s the scary part of it,” he said. “If everybody is walking around with a gun and you won’t have one, you feel like you need it.”

The director of Peach County’s public libraries is concerned about the effect of an open carry law on library patrons.

Billy Tripp, who oversees the Byron Public Library and the Thomas Public Library in Fort Valley, said parents may choose to leave the library in order to avoid having their children near someone with a gun.

But with or without a law, Tripp acknowledged it would be difficult for libraries to prevent a determined gunman from hurting people.

“The bad guy could be in here right now, and we wouldn’t know it until he pulled out and started shooting,” he said.

There are no current plans to hire security or display signs alerting people to the new law.

Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese received training on the law last month from the Georgia Sheriff’s Association.

The courthouse in Fort Valley has a security checkpoint, so weapons will remain prohibited there after the law takes effect, but to add security checkpoints to other government buildings that don’t have them would be “very expensive,” he said.

Time will tell how the law plays out, Deese said, but he acknowledged that through his experience as a law enforcement officer, he knows a person’s decision-making process is altered when there is immediate access to a gun.

“If two guys get into a fight and they have to go to the car to get the gun, there is some cooling off period, some thought process there,” Deese said. “Now if both of them are standing there with a gun -- in my little old country way of thinking -- the thought process is going to be who shoots first?”

For now, there are no plans to add security checkpoints at municipal buildings in Fort Valley, said Mayor Barbara Williams, adding that she thinks safety will be increased thanks to the new law.

She offered herself as an example as someone who may be the last person to leave her office. Before House Bill 60, she would have been prevented from having a gun in her possession while working in a government building, but once the law takes effect, she will be able to have one if she chooses and feel more secure walking alone in the parking lot.

Monroe commissioners criticize gun law

Monroe County commissioners had a lively discussion of the new law at their June 17 meeting.

One commissioner admitted carrying a gun at the meeting, and another said he felt “mostly undressed” anytime he’s not packing heat.

Ultimately, the group took no action.

Near the beginning of the discussion, Commissioner Jim Ham said, “I’ve got my gun on me, and I hope y’all have too. ... Anybody who wants to come up and take a shot, take a shot. They might get shot at back.”

Ham and Commissioner Patsy Miller said they opposed installing metal detectors in county buildings to bar weapons because of the costs.

“I just think it’s an added expense that we don’t need to be looking at right now,” Miller said.

Ham said he thinks the law “causes us to spend more money that we don’t have.”

Commissioner Larry Evans said he thinks the new law is “ridiculous,” saying it doesn’t make “sense at all for people to be bringing guns into public places.”

Sometimes things “get heated,” and someone upset about property taxes might “want to take it out on nobody else but this board” because commissioners set the millage rate, Evans said.

He also expressed concern about someone trying to intimidate the board with a gun.

Commission Chairman Mike Bilderback said knowing other guns might be in the room serves as a deterrent to someone doing harm.

“When someone knows there’s no gun in the building and they bring one, they know everyone is defenseless,” he said. “The way I see it, if there is a possible gun in the room, there’s a possibility of them getting shot.”

The commissioners also talked about the possibility of requiring county employees to undergo firearms training if they want to bring a gun onto county property, but no policy was passed.

After about 15 minutes of discussion, the group decided not to take any action.

Ham said, “My recommendation would be to keep your powder dry.”

Forsyth City Council members are set to discuss a plan at their Tuesday meeting.

Councilman Jimmy Stroud said council members have asked the city attorney to review the new law and be prepared to break it down into layman’s terms at the meeting.

With the law going into effect on the morning before the meeting is held at night, Stroud said police will be extra vigilant to “make sure people are doing the right thing.”

Jones County stands pat

Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece doesn’t foresee any changes in security at the county courthouse -- or anywhere else for that matter -- when it comes to the new law.

“We haven’t done anything differently. At the courthouse we already search. We have scanners ... so we’re doing nothing differently,” Reece said.

Gray Police Chief Adam Lowe said his officers will conduct screenings at City Council meetings and other official City Hall gatherings, where guns won’t be allowed.

“It just puts a little bit more of a burden on us now because we’re going to have to have officers there at the meetings,” Lowe said. “Plus, they’ll have to stay, because it’s an open meeting, and people get there late and they’ll be in and out.”

State lawmakers weigh in

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, voted against the law. He said if local governments give legislators enough flak about it, lawmakers cold revisit the law next year.

“The squeaky wheel always gets the oil,” he said. “If all of these local governments are having problems with it, I would assume they are going to contact their legislators.”

Lucas called the law “extreme.” He said it was a tea party initiative and a response to controversy over the so-called “stand your ground” law.

State Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Warner Robins, voted for the law. He said all the complaints he has heard have come from Bibb County.

Right now, he sees no need for any changes, but he didn’t rule any out. O’Neal said he is always willing to take another look at any law if changes are needed.

He said he voted for it because he is a Second Amendment advocate.

Former DA supports law

Kelly Burke, former Houston County district attorney, is a staunch gun-rights supporter and two years ago founded the group Houston County Carries Concealed. Its Facebook page now has more than 3,500 likes.

Burke said there’s no need for local governments to take any additional security measures because of the new law.

“The criminals were coming to city hall every day with a gun in their pocket, but now that we, the good guys, can carry a gun, all of a sudden you are going to start screening?” he said. “If I am going to get a business license, what is that person processing the business license going to do that is going to make me so mad that I’m going to pull out a gun and start shooting?”

House Bill 60 has many provisions, including one that hunters can use silencers and that churches can allow guns.

But perhaps the most eyebrow-raising provision of all is that people can bring guns into bars. Bar owners, however, have the right to exclude them or escort gun toters out.

Alice Padgett, owner of AP’s Hidden Hideaway on Broadway, had signs made recently warning people not to bring guns inside. She doesn’t know what other bars may be doing, but she didn’t think many of them would go along with allowing guns.

“You just don’t put guns and drinking together,” she said. “It’s like putting guns in the hands of children.”

Staff writers Wayne Crenshaw, Joe Kovac Jr., Amy Leigh Womack, Jim Gaines, Mike Stucka and Andres David Lopez contributed to this report.

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