ELLIJAY, Ga. (AP) — Georgia took a big step Wednesday toward expanding where licensed gun carriers can take their weapons, as the governor signed a bill allowing them in bars without restriction and in some churches, schools and government buildings under certain circumstances.
Following mass shootings in recent years, some states have pursued stronger limits on guns while others like Georgia have taken the opposite path, with advocates arguing that people should be allowed to carry weapons as an issue of public safety. Republicans control large majorities in the Georgia General Assembly, and the bill passed overwhelming despite objections from some religious leaders and local government officials. One group outside Georgia criticized it as the "guns everywhere" bill.
For the signing by Gov. Nathan Deal and barbecue, a few hundred gun rights supporters gathered at an outdoor pavilion along a river in north Georgia in the town of Ellijay. Many in the audience sported "Stop Gun Control" buttons and several had weapons holstered at their side. House Speaker David Ralston offered a thinly veiled critique of those who might oppose the bill while describing the people of his district.
"This is the apple capital of Georgia. And, yes, it's a community where we cling to our religion and our guns," Ralston said, drawing big applause in referencing a past comment made by President Barack Obama.
The bill makes several changes to state law. Guns could be brought into some government buildings that don't have certain security measures, such as a metal detector or security guards screening visitors. It allows religious leaders to make the decision whether a person with a permit can bring a gun into their place of worship.
And school districts would now be able, if they want, to allow some employees to carry a firearm on school grounds under certain conditions.
"This bill is about the good guys, you guys," bill sponsor Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, told the crowd. "Amid all the misinformation and emotions, one must remember that this bill isn't about irresponsibly arming the masses. This is a bill about safety and responsibility."
The Georgia Municipal Association was among those raising concerns, sending a letter to Deal arguing local governments couldn't afford to increase security. Deal, in his remarks, argued the bill empowers local decisions.
"House Bill 60 will protect law-abiding citizens by expanding the number of places that they can carry their guns without penalty, while at the same time this bill respects the rights of private property owners who still set the rules for their land and their buildings," Deal said.
Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Christina.