FORSYTH COUNTY — Georgia took a big step Wednesday toward expanding where licensed gun carriers can take their weapons, as Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill allowing them in bars without restriction and in some churches, schools and government buildings under certain circumstances.
Following mass shootings in recent years, some states have pursued stronger limits on guns while others like Georgia have taken the opposite path, with advocates arguing that people should be allowed to carry weapons as an issue of public safety.
The bill makes several changes to state law. Guns could be brought into some government buildings that don’t have certain security measures, such as a metal detector or security guards screening visitors. It allows religious leaders to make the decision whether a person with a permit can bring a gun into their place of worship.
But reviews in Forsyth County appear to be mixed, with many religious leaders and bar owners declining to comment on the measure.
Bill Norman, owner of Norman’s Landing restaurant, plans to sit back and see what happens after the law takes effect July 1. He said if someone were to start firing a gun, other people who likely would be carrying could disable the shooter. But Norman did say there are concerns, particularly because alcohol could be involved.
“If someone breaks into my house, they’re going to win some bullets from me,” he said. “But it just scares me if people are drinking and they’ve got a gun on them. I just don’t want it to get back to being the wild, wild West.”
Todd Shirley, director of school safety and student discipline for the Forsyth County school system, said the measure likely won’t change much.
All county high schools have a full-time school resource officer, as well as officers who work in the system’s middle and elementary schools. Shirley said the officers and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office’s “presence is fairly extensive and we’ve been very pleased with our partnership.”
“I don’t know that it will drastically change the way we look at weapons,” he said. “We’re going to go with what was signed and we’ll be OK.”
In announcing the measure, Deal said about half a million Georgians, or about 5 percent of the state’s population, have a state weapons carry license. He pointed out they have passed background checks and are in good standing with the law.
The measure simply gives added protections to those who play by the rules, to protect themselves against those who don’t, he said.
While some local church leaders contacted for this article declined comment, the Rev. Keith Oglesby at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit has been vocal about his opinion since the beginning. He wrote letters to state lawmakers and actively opposed the bill.
“It is well intended by some that feel it can help protect people, but I think the church is a sanctuary and it’s not a place for guns,” he said. “I know there are good-hearted people who disagree but ... I’m not going to allow guns, our church is not going to allow guns and I think it’s very bad public policy.”
For First Baptist Cumming Pastor Bob Jolly, the issue is a “detractor from our mission to tell the good news of Jesus to people.”
His church, he said, “has a security team and a security plan in place, including paid officers.”
“We had this plan in place before this new law,” he said. “The plan is still effective and to add more guns to the mix would simply increase our security risk.”
The new law also has local government implications, allowing a licensed gun holder to carry a weapon into a government building during business hours as long as it isn’t restricted or screened by security personnel.
Chairman Pete Amos said the matter likely will come up during the county commission’s work session Tuesday.
“We’ve got to deal with it and let the people know what the rules and regulations are in the state,” he said.
County Manager Doug Derrer said the issue is of “particular interest to the county as it represents a significant change with respect to the introduction of weapons into most county-owned buildings.”
“The Forsyth County management team is reviewing the new law in conjunction with the county attorney, and will present the law including options for compliance to the [commission] at a future work session,” he said. “The county will have a plan in place for compliance prior to the law becoming effective.”
As for his own safety, Amos added that he has “never been worried.”
“I trust the citizens of Forsyth County,” he said. “I feel we have sheriff’s officers there 99 percent of the time. I feel very protected around the administration building.”
Staff writer Jennifer Sami contributed to this report.