By Eli Watkins
The state of Georgia is a bastion of college football fanaticism, church attendance, and gun ownership. In keeping with one of these traditions, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill in February easing restrictions on concealed carry in colleges, churches, and bars. The bill has teetered back and forth in the legislature since then.
This legislation could carry real ramifications for downtown Athens, an area predominantly composed of bars.
The gun rights expansion would bring many changes to Georgia if it becomes law. As the law stands now, gun owners of legal age (21 or over) can register with the state of Georgia and receive a concealed carry permit. Permit holders may then keep a weapon on their person. They can carry the weapon in many places with few exceptions. The proposals flying through the Gold Dome seek to remove some of these exceptions and reduce the penalties for violating the rules.
Republican legislators in Georgia have pushed hard for some expansion of gun rights with last year’s failure behind them and elections in front of them this year. HB 875, the “Safe Carry Protection Act,” and its more recently amended counterpart, HB 60, have become the substance of that push in this legislative session. The original proposal was broader in scope, and observers will have to wait for the current legislative session to end today to see what form the final bill takes, if any.
Legislators have backed down on some points so far. They curbed potential concealed carry expansions to public places, like colleges.
One of the proposed changes could affect downtown Athens more than all the others could, and so far, legislators have not taken it off the table. Georgia may remove the ban on carrying firearms in bars, instead leaving that decision up to bar owners. The question remains: Will the bar owners of Athens welcome gun owners into their establishments?
When asked about a broader proposal last year, Athens bar owner Paul DeGeorge came down as a clear “no.” He owned firearms, but that did not mean he thought they belonged in bars.
“It’s a bad environment to have access to something like that. There’s too many brawls,” said DeGeorge.
A third year journalism student and occasional bar-goer, Skye Rubel, echoed DeGeorge’s concerns.
“People drink and do stupid things. Guns and alcohol are a horrible combination,” said Rubel.
Other Athenians in the bar industry were not so critical. Norman Scholz, the general manager of The Globe, did not have a problem with the idea of concealed carry in his place of work.
“As long as it is legally concealed carry, then it’s not our concern,” said Scholz.
Opinions vary on this controversial legislation, with viewpoints ranging from outrage to skepticism to full support. Discussions over the potential expansion of concealed carry have taken a decidedly chill tone in Athens, as one would expect. However, the controversial aspects of this bill have invited statewide and national scrutiny.
The gun control advocacy organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns wrote, “This bill [HB 875] would dangerously expand the scope of the state’s existing Stand Your Ground law.” People on different sides of the debate have disputed the accuracy of this letter’s claims. However, the text of the bill they referenced did provide the legal opportunity for fights in bars to end in justifiable homicide involving firearms.
State Representative Scott Holcomb is one of the bill’s skeptics.
“As far as bars are concerned, I think that any of us that have had that witches brew touch our tongues get that you don’t want to mix guns with that,” said Holcomb.
Gun possession in bars does have its advocates. John Monroe of GeorgiaCarry.org, Inc. said his organization supports carrying firearms in bars, openly or concealed. “We think safety would be enhanced in bars if carry were allowed,” said Monroe, “Carry already is allowed in restaurants that serve alcohol… So, people already are carrying in many places that are essentially bars and there are not issues with it.”
The push from Republicans, particularly in the state house, has been strong. Almost all of the Republicans in the state house voted in favor of the bill, and they almost comprise a supermajority in that chamber. The vote in the GA house split the members from Athens. Democrat Spencer Frye voted “Nay,” and republican Regina Quick voted “Yea.”
A gun bill of the kind discussed so far may pass in the waning minutes of this session and move swiftly thereafter to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk. If it does not, observers can guarantee a similar push next year.
The Georgia state government may soon make its decision, then the bar owners of Athens will make the ultimate call.
People know the bars of Athens for eclectic music and underage drinking. These welcome frat brothers sporting identical popped-collar polos and townies sporting identical vaudevillian mustaches. Will bars open their doors to concealed firearms too? It looks like someday soon, the people of Athens will find out for themselves.