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Georgia bill could allow guns in bars, churches and airports

The state Senate could pass the Safe Carry Protection Act as soon as next week to allow guns in bars, churches, airports, and government buildings.
A police officer collects a gun from from a motorist during a gun buyback, in Atlanta, Georgia, Jan. 16, 2014.
A police officer collects a gun from from a motorist during a gun buyback, in Atlanta, Georgia, Jan. 16, 2014.

Georgia lawmakers could soon make broad changes to the state’s gun laws to allow firearms in bars, churches, airports, and certain government buildings.

To what extent weapons should be permitted in such buildings is the issue addressed in two bills – both part of the “Safe Carry Protection Act” – currently pending in Georgia’s state legislature. The first version, drafted by the House, has been deemed "the most extreme gun bill in America" by Americans for Responsible Solutions. The Senate version removes some of the House’s provisions.

The House Republican bill would allow visitors at churches, bars, and certain government buildings without security personnel to be eligible to carry firearms, unless the organization "opts out." The Senate’s draft, however, would require owners to “opt in” to allow guns on their premises.

The House bill also includes a provision that would allow K-12 schools and local boards to allow employees to carry weapons on school grounds. But the Senate provision left the current law untouched, thus continuing to permit armed campus security and police – but not administrators or staff -- to carry firearms.

The majority of the House bill focuses on adults older than 21 who have clear records and are eligible for a concealed weapons license, said State Rep. Rick Jasperse, the author of the Safe Carry Protection Act.

"Why they want to carry one is none of my business. It's really no one's business because they meet the criteria to carry that weapon," Jasperse, a Republican, told msnbc.

Both bills would grant Georgians the right to bear arms in non-restricted areas of airports, such as ticketing counters and parking lots.

"By enacting this bill, the Legislature in one swoop would be enacting several dangerous changes into the law. Each one separately is a significant change that will endanger public safety each on its own. You put it all together and it's just a sweeping reform of gun laws to make them much weaker," Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told msnbc.

Georgia’s bill is the latest to enter the national debate over state gun-control laws. The Georgia House last month overwhelmingly passed the bill, which the Senate revised. The House then provided markups earlier this week, including the removal of a Senate provision that would reduce penalties for permit-holders caught carrying a gun on college campuses from a misdemeanor to a fine. The House added its most recent version to a separate piece of legislation that would allow retired judges to carry firearms.

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"It re-establishes a lot of our freedoms that we should already have," Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, told msnbc. "We just want to be able to protect ourselves no matter where we go."

Opponents, however, believe the bill invites greater risk. The Roman Catholic Bishops of Georgia issued a statement in support of preserving places of worship as houses of peace.

"As pastors, we see too many examples of the anguish of families, friends of neighbors of victims of violence to which access to dangerous weapons contributes," Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory said in a statement. "The proliferation of guns in our society is not the answer to the tragedies that we have witnessed all too often."

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said quick action in both legislative chambers has made it difficult for residents to familiarize themselves with the differences between the two bills.

"The reality is that the Second Amendment is available, it's an amendment that people embrace and understand … but reasonable controls over people carrying weapons is also something that I -- and I'm sure almost all of law enforcement -- want to see," Rotundo told msnbc.

The House bill would also expand Georgia's Stand-Your-Ground statute to include individuals currently prohibited from owning a gun. But the Senate removed the provision and kept language from the current law, which provides people the right to use deadly force to defend themselves without retreating from potentially harmful situations. 

George Zimmerman’s acquittal last summer in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin brought renewed national attention to Stand-Your-Ground laws. Nearly half of the states in the country have joined Florida, which adopted the policy in 2005, in passing their own Stand-Your-Ground laws.

Similar initiatives have surfaced in other states, including Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter this week signed into law a bill that prohibits state colleges and universities from regulating guns.

The legislation is alarming for parents who send their children to school campuses expecting them to remain safe, visitors of bars where alcohol is consumed, and followers who seek peace at places of worship, said Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

"We absolutely oppose it. Our feeling is that the answer to gun violence is not more guns. This is a continuation of what the gun lobby is perpetuating on the American public, which is guns anywhere, anyplace, for virtually anyone," Malte told msnbc. "There seems to be no end to where they want guns. We feel that the Georgia Legislature should be doing something to stop dangerous people from getting guns in the first place."

The bill could pass as early as next week before the current legislative session ends on March 20. Lawmakers, who are currently in recess until Tuesday, tried to pass a similar measure last year, but it failed in the state Senate.

"There are so many good things in this bill for Georgians and clarifying this law," Rep. Jasperse said. "We've given into some things already to move this bill along because we want Georgians to be able to protect themselves."

A gubernatorial election will occur later this year on Nov. 4. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, previously supported loosening gun restrictions, earning him an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and an endorsement for the Republican primary runoff election in 2010. The governor's office would not provide msnbc with comment about the pending gun-control bill.

The nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, meanwhile, gave Georgia an “F” grade on its 2013 ranking. In 2010, Georgia had the 17th highest number of gun deaths per capita among the 50 states, according to the center.

The majority -- 91% -- of residents in Georgia last year supported mandatory background checks for all gun buyers, according to a poll published in March 2013 in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Country-wide support for stricter gun-control laws then dropped last December as the 2012 massacre faded from view. Congress failed last spring to pass a bipartisan background checks bill, resulting in a continued stalemate over firearms legislation at the federal level. Gun control advocates have had better luck at the state level, where almost half of all states have passed at least one new law that strengthened restrictions in 2013.