In Georgia, it will soon be legal to carry a gun in more places -- including bars, churches and government buildings -- following Gov. Nathan Deal's signing Wednesday of a bill celebrated by supporters as a victory for the 2nd Amendment but decried by critics as the "guns-everywhere bill."
"We Georgians believe in the right of people to defend themselves, and we believe in the 2nd Amendment," Deal said. The measure drew national attention because of its sweep and its passage after a number of high-profile shootings around the country.
The Safe Carry Protection Act, which takes effect July 1, will allow licensed gun owners to take firearms into houses of worship if the congregation allows it, into bars unless the owner objects, into non-secure areas of airports, and into government buildings, except past security checkpoints.
The National Rifle Assn. called the legislation the "most comprehensive pro-gun bill in Georgia state history." Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, a group that pushed for the bill's passage, said by phone that the law will "give the law-abiding citizen more protection in more places.''
The law also would permit schools to arm staff members and lower the age from 21 to 18 for active members of the military to obtain gun licenses. It would forbid the confiscation of firearms during an emergency, a response to authorities taking guns in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The measure also would offer defendants an "absolute defense" in court if a gun is used in the face of a violent attack.
The gun debate has intensified in the wake of high-profile gun violence, such as the shooting rampages at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Since the beginning of the year, six states have strengthened gun laws while six states, including Georgia, have relaxed restrictions, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The moves underscore how the regulation of firearms often divides the country by geography.
Four states, meanwhile, have enacted laws that strengthened some regulations but eased others.
On Wednesday, Deal said the Georgia legislation would "protect law-abiding citizens by expanding the number of places they can carry their guns." The governor received 3,012 letters, emails and phone calls urging him to sign the bill and 1,887 asking him to veto it, according to his office.
"To say that we're disappointed is an understatement,'' Kathryn Grant, Georgia state director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, said in an interview.
At the Somewhere in Augusta Bar & Grill, where a sign is posted on the front door reading "No Weapons Permitted," co-owner Cynthia Fiske said that she doesn't like the idea of guns in bars.
"When people are drinking, tempers can flare high," she told the Los Angeles Times.
A number of religious leaders expressed concern about the bill. Asked how the new law reflected what is happening in Georgia, Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, responded: "In a word, insanity."
"The mother of Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in our sanctuary in 1974 while playing the Lord's Prayer one Sunday morning," he said in an interview. "She was killed by a deranged teenager who had access to a gun but not enough access to mental health care. Forty years later, I think that problem is exacerbated by the signing of this law."
Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church Decatur, said in an email, "This fear-based bill directly contradicts the principles by which people of faith live and worship."
But Mike Griffin, public affairs representative of the Georgia Baptist Convention, expressed support for the legislation, telling The Times last month that the legislation lets churches set the rules for themselves.
Local government officials expressed concern that the measure could increase their security or insurance costs.
"This legislation subverts local control and undermines local officials' discretion to make decisions that best suit the interests of the communities they were elected to represent," the Georgia Municipal Assn. said in a letter to the governor, noting the legislation would require governments to bear the cost of setting up security checkpoints in order to restrict weapons in government buildings.
Deal's signing of the bill was expected, given that the Republican governor has an A rating from the NRA and is up for reelection. His Democratic challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter, former President Carter's grandson, also supported the bill.