By Jeremy Redmon
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Georgia House jumped back into the long-running debate over gun rights Monday, approving legislation that would allow motorists to conceal loaded firearms in their cars without a permit.
Proponents say House Bill 89 would let motorists keep firearms in easy reach to defend themselves against carjackers and other criminals. But critics say the measure would circumvent the state's concealed handgun background check requirements and endanger police making traffic stops.
The House approved HB 89 on a bipartisan vote of 130-38 Monday, capping its first extended — and heated — debate of this year's legislative session.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where one of the chamber's Republican leaders said it has a good chance of passage.
State law now requires motorists who do not have concealed handgun permits to keep their loaded firearms "fully exposed to view" or in the glove box, console or similar compartment.
The bill sponsored by state Rep. Tim Bearden (R-Villa Rica) would allow people to hide guns under seats or wedge them between seat cushions and center consoles.
"It allows a law-abiding citizen . . . to place a firearm anywhere in the vehicle that they feel is the safest place for their personal protection, for the protection of their family or passengers in that vehicle," Bearden told lawmakers during a sometimes testy debate that lasted more than an hour.
"What this bill does is just give back a piece — a small piece — of the Second Amendment that has been deprived of so many law-abiding citizens over the last few years."
The measure is one of several gun-related bills pending in the Legislature. A second would ban police from confiscating guns during a state of emergency such as a hurricane. A third would prohibit certain employers from banning firearms in locked vehicles at employee parking lots or garages.
Last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a law that gives Georgians permission to use deadly force against muggers, carjackers and other attackers without fear of being prosecuted or sued. Supporters labeled it the "stand your ground" law, while critics called it a "shoot first" measure that would encourage reckless shootings.
The National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America support Bearden's bill.
"Very often people who are driving don't have the luxury of keeping their firearm in plain view," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
The 565-member Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the bill.
"Our association and its members strongly support Georgians' Second Amendment rights," Frank V. Rotondo, the association's executive director, wrote in a letter to lawmakers Monday. "However, the effect of this bill would extend those rights to an absurd level and have the ultimate effect of occasioning more killings of both police officers, and innocent civilians."
Several Democrats opposed the bill from the House floor Monday.
"Are you not concerned about the safety of police officers in this matter?" Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) asked Bearden.
Bearden, a former Douglasville police sergeant, responded: "I can promise you one thing: I would never endorse nor would I author a bill that would endanger any of my brothers and sisters in law enforcement."
Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta) asked why the bill is needed.
"The current leadership of this House at the beginning of this session indicated that one of the conditions for a bill should be that it . . . solves a problem," Bruce said. "What problem does this solve?"
Bearden responded: "The most dearest thing anyone can do is to protect their family from criminal assault."
In the Senate, President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said the bill stands a good chance of approval there. "Government does not tell a private citizen where they can keep a gun in their home. They should not be able to tell a law-abiding citizen where they can keep a gun in their own personal vehicle."
Georgians for Gun Safety also opposes the measure, citing statistics that 575 police officers were killed in the line of duty across the country between 1996 and 2005. Of those, 102 were killed during traffic violation stops and felony traffic stops, according to the federal Department of Justice. The federal report does not specify whether guns were involved in those incidents.
State law prohibits people under 21, drug dealers and other felons from obtaining concealed gun licenses. And people applying for the licenses must submit to fingerprinting and criminal background checks.
Alice Johnson, executive director of Georgians for Gun Safety, said Bearden's bill "erases the distinction that currently exists between someone who can purchase a firearm . . . and those who can pass the comprehensive background check to get a concealed weapons permit."
"Many people are turned down for those permit applications because of something in their background that was identified because of that more comprehensive background check," Johnson said.
Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Ga. bill that would remove permit restriction for concealed weapons heads to Senate