Georgia appears poised to enact a so-called guns-everywhere law, making it easier for firearm permit holders to take their weapons into bars, churches, and even airports. Approved last week by the state legislature, the bill awaits the signature of Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a strong gun-rights advocate up for reelection this fall. His opponent, Jason Carter, a Democratic state senator and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, voted for the legislation, so enactment seems assured.
Non-gun owners doubtless find all this baffling. Here are four blunt points to sort out what’s going on and how to respond:
1. The Newtown school massacre led to “guns everywhere.” Perverse as it may sound, the horrific mass shooting in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary produced a burst of state-level gun control bills around the country and then triggered a much stronger pro-gun backlash. The counter-reaction has now reached its apogee in Georgia. In the past year alone, 21 states have enacted laws expanding gun rights, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Several states added piecemeal provisions allowing firearms on college campuses or in bars or churches. Georgia’s politicians, egged on by the National Rifle Association, have gone for broke.
2. Georgia illustrates the NRA’s structural advantage on gun control. As if we needed a fresh demonstration of this phenomenon, the gun-rights lobby currently enjoys a fundamental edge in the debate about regulating firearms. In an era of falling crime rates, liberal enthusiasm for gun control simply doesn’t pack much political punch outside certain blue-state environments. Yes, people get riled up, understandably, by mass shootings at schools or movie theaters. Over and over, we’ve seen those emotions fade quickly, giving way to a more sustained counter-reaction from the pro-gun side. The NRA has skillfully responded to calls for stricter gun control by portraying them as evidence that liberals’ real agenda is confiscating firearms—all firearms.
A cadre of highly motivated, well organized pro-gun voters believe the NRA scare tactics and rally behind ever-more-aggressive measures to expand gun rights. Thus, we now have concealed-carry laws in all 50 states. We have traditional self-defense laws replaced by stand-your-ground—and in Georgia, guns everywhere. Even those who deplore these developments at some point must acknowledge the pattern. At present (and maybe always), the intensity of pro-gun passion exceeds that of anti-gun passion.
3. Skeptics of expansive gun rights need to respond intelligently. The smart response is not scorn or exaggeration. For better or worse, gun ownership has come to symbolize a range of deeply felt ideas about culture and government authority. Making fun of people who view their firearms as emblems of liberty and traditional values (however they define those values) will neither change minds nor repeal legislation.
Exaggerating the practical effects of gun-rights legislation doesn’t make sense, either. The Georgia measure allows guns in bars and churches under certain circumstances. Saloon owners who don’t want weapons in their establishments would have to post a sign saying so. That doesn’t sound so onerous; a lot of bars in pro-gun precincts already have such signs. Worshipers in Georgia wouldn’t be allowed to pack heat unless their congregation affirmatively votes to “opt in” to the guns-everywhere law. Personally, I wouldn’t choose a synagogue whose congregants thought they needed Glocks to celebrate the sabbath. But that’s me. If someone else’s congregation feels safer knowing that people are armed, I say: Let them go with God. I doubt that enactment of Georgia’s law will lead to a rash of shoot-outs. If it does, Georgians can reassess.
4. The best response to gun-rights extremism is a focus on fighting crime. Rather than engage with the NRA on the cultural battlefield, where gun-rights advocates have the upper hand, liberals should focus on the most-pressing problem related to firearms—that their prevalence in American society makes our violent crime more lethal. Broadly speaking, this approach would have liberals emphasize more aggressive enforcement of existing laws against illegal gun possession, rather than obsess about situations that allow law-abiding citizens to own guns and carry them on their person. Still speaking broadly, the anti-crime approach would have liberals ask how the extraordinary successes in reducing violent crime in places like New York—where gun control laws have not changed for decades—can be replicated elsewhere.
Turning back to Georgia, this mindset would inspire guns-everywhere skeptics (and if you can’t tell by now, I am one) to focus on those provisions of the law that appear to be soft on crime and criminals. For example, the statute would provide more leeway for gun owners to escape punishment if they try to go through airport security while armed. That seems dangerous. We’ve decided as a society that we don’t want guns on airplanes. This security requirement doesn’t seem terribly difficult to remember, what with all the people in uniform at the airport and all those screening machines and long lines and having to take off your shoes, for goodness’s sake.
A further troubling aspect of the Georgia law is that its ambiguous wording might provide wiggle room for a felon to invoke the state’s separate stand-your-ground law as part of a self-defense claim. Now this would be truly preposterous. Felons, even in Georgia, aren’t supposed to have guns in the first place, so maybe this issue is more a function of poor legislative craftsmanship than malign intent. But since pro-gun activists are simultaneously lobbying all over the place to make it easier for some felons to get their right to own guns reinstated, this facet of the law seems to merit quick repeal.
The upshot: Rather than argue that guns are evil or that gun enthusiasts are nuts, liberal skeptics should push back with concrete proposals for keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and children.