Gun Rights Vs. Public Discomfort In Georgia
By Ernie Suggs and Rhonda Cook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)
ATLANTA — Barbara Cheng saw the news last week about a man walking through Atlanta’s airport with an assault rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition. Instantly, she flashed on the time two years ago when she and her kids strolled into a McDonald’s to find an armed man eating a Big Mac.
“The place was eerily quiet,” Cheng said of the restaurant along I-75 in North Georgia. “Obviously we weren’t the only ones disturbed.”
Her children couldn’t stop staring at the gun.
“I was incredibly angry because he obviously thought his so-called ‘rights’ trumped everyone else’s in that restaurant,” she said. “I hated that man and I still hate him. These are bullies.”
If people are nervous, Jim Cooley said, that’s their problem.
“It’s not a protest. We have rights, and the government thinks they can convert your right into a privilege,” said Cooley, a retired truck driver who was disabled by a heart attack.
Cooley was questioned, but not arrested. He reminded an officer outside the airport that under Georgia law, police may not detain anyone to find out whether they have a permit to carry a firearm (which is required for handguns only and not long guns like the AR-15).
“I was doing everything I was allowed to do within the law and all of a sudden I start getting approached because the police got phone calls,” Cooley said. “Instead of the police approaching me, they need to start educating the public. Put up signs in the airport saying firearms can be legally carried in the airport.”
He filmed and posted the incident, adding his experience to dozens of others in which gun rights activists have boldly armed themselves to make their points.
Cooley has been called crazy, a hero, confused, a patriot.
Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, joined those who said Cooley was technically correct and within his rights.
“In the unrestricted areas of the airport, the right to carry does exist,” the governor said. “I think that there again, that’s one of those balancing acts between individual freedom and general welfare of the public.”
Kathryn Grant, co-founder of GunSense Georgia Coalition, thinks the balance is off.
“There is not an airport official in the world who would say that carrying an AR-15 makes sense,” Grant said. “So the question is why would that be allowed to happen?”
In 2014, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 60, known as the “Guns Everywhere Bill,” which for the first time expanded where Georgians could legally carry firearms, including into public schools, bars, churches, and some government buildings. Local school boards still have the authority to decide which school staffers may carry guns on campus.
Higher education is stricter. The University System bans guns from campus buildings, including dormitories. The only exception to the school and university restrictions is for gun owners, with a carry permit, who are picking up or dropping off someone.
Under the “Guns Everywhere Bill,” law enforcement officers may not detain an armed person for the sole purpose of asking whether the person has a license to carry a weapon.
Sheriff Howard Sills, the former president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said after the law changed, several calls came into the Putnam County sheriff’s office from people promising to test the new provisions.
“We were inundated with damn crazy people,” Sills said. “This airport thing is just an idjit who’s doing some crazy (stuff) to draw attention to himself. Or he’s looking for a lawsuit.”
Sills said the fatal shooting in Carrollton last week is an example of problems with the law. An officer responded to a report of an armed man at a gas station. According to a recording of the encounter, the officer first asked 40-year-old Kenneth Joel Dothard whether he had a carry permit and then whether he was a convicted felon, which would prohibit him from having a gun.
Dothard said he was a felon.
Cpl. Chad Cook repeatedly told Dothard not to pull his holstered gun. Cook shot and killed Dothard as he argued that he had the right to have the gun.
Noting that he can question and arrest a fisherman for not having a license, Sills said the gun law is absurd. “If I see you walking down the street with a handgun on your person, I can’t stop you. I can ask … but they don’t have to answer. … There’s nothing I can do.”