2007-12-13

The legal gun battle

The Athens-Clarke County government is out of ammo in its battle to defend its ordinance on firearms in parks. It still insists on just bringing a knife to a proverbial gunfight, though. Your local tax dollars will go to work on Jan. 4 when the Athens-Clarke County Superior Court is expected to hear arguments from the attorney for Donald A. Walker and Georgiacarry.org on why the county should be enjoined from enforcing the ordinance and from the county on why the case against it should be dismissed. Based on a decision this month from the Court of Appeals, expect the county to ultimately lose.

Walker and Georgiacarry.org, Inc., have sued to the county to prevent enforcement of the county ordinance which prohibits the possession of firearms in county parks. They are relying on a state statute which preempts most local regulation regarding firearms. In fact, the Court of Appeals just issued an opinion interpreting the statute and preventing Coweta County from using a similar ordinance. GeorgiaCarry.org v. Coweta County, 2007 Ga. App. LEXIS 1289, 2007 WL 4235857 (uncorrected and subject to revision). The statute states: "No county or municipal corporation, by zoning or by ordinance, resolution, or other enactment, shall regulate in any manner gun shows; the possession, ownership, transport, carrying, transfer, sale, purchase, licensing, or registration of firearms or components of firearms; firearms dealers; or dealers in firearms components." Ga. Code Ann. sec. 16-11-173(b)(1) (West 2007).

I still see an option under which the county might be able to prohibit firearms in parks, but it would not be through a criminal ordinance, so it is not really relevant here.

Apparently some people are still fearful of the notion of firearms in parks, and I would like to dispel that notion here. First of all, as a general matter, it is against Georgia law to carry a handgun without a license, so there is already regulation addressing the matter of citizens carrying around such a dangerous instrumentality. Second, there is a process of obtaining such a license: an applicant goes to the probate court seeking a license and supplying fingerprints, and the probate court does a background check. The probate judge must issue a license a license to applicants who meet all the requirements. The possible disqualifiers include being convicted of a felony, a drug crime, or a weapon crime, and having been a recent patient in a mental or substance abuse facility. Third, there are restrictions on licensed persons from carrying a gun to a "public gathering," a term that is not well defined.

What does all this mean for guns in parks here in Athens? Well, as is true with all gun regulation, criminals don't obey laws. The laws are followed by the law-abiding, and if we lose this county ordinance, anyone who legally carries a gun in a park is a person who has passed a background check. They also have their license with them and are carrying the gun in some kind of holster. (Yes, the law also addresses how the gun is carried, so all these stories about guys shooting their leg when they stuff their gun in their underpants are basically from the criminal element to begin with.) They also won't be carrying a gun to an organized event at the park because of the "public gathering" restriction.

Jim Thompson of the Athens Banner-Herald has made good and bad points. First, it looks like he bought into irrational gun fears with his column "Looking at the world through a gun sight." He argued against finding a justification for being allowed to carry guns in parks and dismissed the right to self-defense there by writing: "What I can't even begin to fathom is how it must be to believe everything, including a trip to the park, carries the potential for gun violence to erupt. But I guess that when you insist on looking at the world through a gun sight, you get a pretty skewed view." We could easily turn this around on Thompson and say that he is the one with a skewed view if he believes that law-abiding citizens present a danger if they carry guns in parks.

Thompson did make a point with which I am willing to accept in his blog post "He's back, but he's ducking." He wrote: "I believe that when I’m out in public, I have a right to expect that anyone carrying a weapon is demonstrably proficient with that weapon, and has that proficiency tested on a regular basis by a competent authority." Florida actually takes this approach by requiring proof of training for firearms license applicants, though Georgia does not. Of course, a common requirement for law enforcement officers anywhere is that their firearm proficiency is regularly retested. I would accept such a requirement in exchange for the privilege of carrying what the law deems to be a dangerous instrumentality because that does seem to be a sensible regulation.

In full disclosure, I've had a Georgia Firearms License for over five years, and I just joined Georgiacarry.org. I occasionally carry a concealed pistol in public places, and I religiously follow gun safety rules.

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