A bill moving through the legislature could allow guns into churches, more bars and government buildings as well as permit teachers to carry them into schools. Decisions would be left up to each individual institution, which local leaders are glad of.
The Rev. Dr. Terry Walton, senior pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, said he would look for guidance from congregation members, local church leaders, the North Georgia United Methodist Conference and representatives from the national United Methodist Church before making a decision on whether to allow firearms in his church.
“What our church may or may not decide, we haven’t even begun that conversation,” Walton said.
Walton lamented the fact a climate exists where such a law is even floated.
“It’s kind of sad to me that we have gotten to this place where the places we are calling sanctuaries ... have become places where we’re afraid ... to the point where we feel like we have to carry some type of weapon to protect ourselves,” he said. “I understand the realistic world in which we live ... but it saddens me that we even have to have this discussion.”
Walton said he is under no illusion that some attendees might carry a gun into the church if the decision is made to bar them. But that prospect only makes him more committed to his work.
“It’s just not a black-and-white issue,” Walton said. “It’s a sad issue to me. It sort of motivates me to want to be more about the gospel.”
Dr. Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, said his church hires off-duty uniformed police officers to patrol during Wednesday and Sunday services.
“We’ve been doing that for years because we feel like it’s our responsibility to help protect our people, especially our children,” he added.
With that in mind, Smiley said he did not fear the prospect of members carrying guns into his house of worship.
“I am personally a very strong Second Amendment proponent,” he said. “So I don’t have any problem with law-abiding citizens who are properly permitted” bringing guns into churches.
Smiley, however, acknowledged the decision might not be as easy for other churches.
“I think it is wise to leave it up to each particular congregation to decide for themselves,” he said.
Local schools were tight-lipped on their reactions, pointing out it’s not law yet. The plan was adopted by the House on Tuesday by a vote of 119-56. It will next be considered by Georgia’s state senators, who have proven more reluctant to expand where people can legally take firearms.
In an election year, GOP lawmakers are facing pressure from vocal gun rights groups after a similar effort failed last year.
“If it does become law, then our school board would address it,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “Until then, I do not expect them to do so.”
“My board and I have not had any serious discussions about arming educators in our schools,” said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield. “Trained law enforcement officers are the individuals we rely on to carry weapons.”
Supporters of the plan have said arming school officials would deter attacks on schools, though opponents have said putting more guns in schools increases the danger to everyone.
In December, Gainesville school board members approved school resource officers having access to long-range rifles at Gainesville High, Gainesville Middle and Wood’s Mill Academy. The guns are kept inside a safe on each campus, accessible only by the school resource officer using biometric technology.
The University System of Georgia, which oversees state institutions, including the University of North Georgia, had no comment on the legislation, according to spokesman John Millsaps.
The bill would decriminalize people carrying guns on college campuses. However, they would still be subject to a maximum fine of $100, but would not be arrested if they were 21 and licensed to carry weapons.
Those without a license would be charged with a felony. If convicted, the law would require a fine of $10,000, a maximum 10-year sentence or both.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Restaurant Association said its position hadn’t changed.
It is currently illegal to carry a gun in a bar unless the owner decides otherwise. If passed, private business owners would have to decide whether they want to prohibit firearms.
“The Georgia Restaurant Association supports the rights of private property owners to decide whether guns should be allowed on their property or not,” said Executive Director Karen Bremer. “We haven’t had any members reach out for guidance on it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.