ATLANTA — The Varsity on North Avenue near Georgia Tech is one of the most popular lunch spots in all of Atlanta. As it started to fill up just before noon on Tuesday, the first day of a sweeping new gun law in Georgia, there were holsters on the hips of some of the men who walked in for chili dogs, onion rings and cold drinks on a sweltering day.
But the holsters were for phones, not guns.
At 12:05 p.m., a man with a gun holster entered through the glass doors. Jerry Henry had a Kimber 911 on his hip. There were no shrieks or gasps or stares from patrons. No one seemed to notice.
“The biggest misconception is that everybody is going to notice a difference with this law, but you’re not going to notice a difference,” said Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, a gun rights group. “There are very few things you can do now that you couldn’t do yesterday. The only change I could see coming is that you will be able to see guns on Sunday in churches.”
The gun law, which is called “guns everywhere” by anti-gun advocates but was called the Safe Carry Protections Act by the state legislature, will allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons, concealed or open, into churches, bars, schools and some government buildings, including libraries. Georgia has been ridiculed by some critics for allowing such sweeping changes in regard to Second Amendment rights, with anti-gun advocates fearing chaos. Georgia has also put into its legal code that a police officer may not ask a person with a gun to produce his or her license to carry the weapon.
But downtown Atlanta’s main drag of Peachtree Street was not suddenly transformed on Tuesday into some Western town with cowboys holding sidearms stalking the sidewalks. For one thing, it was a workday. For another, many government buildings have security checkpoints where gun-carrying citizens may be turned away.
Security officers at Atlanta City Hall made it clear no weapons were allowed inside. Security at the state Capitol across the street also would not allow weapons. At an Atlanta public library branch with a security desk, weapons were not allowed among the books and card catalogs. A man at the desk, instructing a security officer on the gun bill, said libraries may turn away patrons with guns if there is a designated security desk. The man would not give his name.
“It was OK for cities to allow criminals to carry [concealed weapons] into their buildings for years and years. So now that we are going to let the law-abiding citizens carry into the buildings, and suddenly, they say they need to spend thousands of dollars on security equipment and these desks,” Henry said. “They don’t trust their citizens, but they trusted the criminals. There was nothing to stop me from carrying concealed weapon a year ago into a public building.”
Henry said Georgia Carry is not going to randomly test to see if the law is being followed. If the group finds the law is not being obeyed at a location, he said, it will write a letter asking the establishment to conform to the law.
There are very few things you can do now that you couldn’t do yesterday. The only change I could see coming is that you will be able to see guns on Sunday in churches.
executive director, Georgia Carry
Georgia Carry has worked with law enforcement agencies to help them understand the law, said Henry. But that does not mean that police officers on the street welcomed the new law. One officer on Peachtree rolled her eyes when she was reminded the new law was in effect. She had heard the story of a man on a Georgia highway overpass brandishing — legally — an AK-47. “Those [rounds] go right through our vests,” the officer said. She would not give her name.
But the law has made people uneasy. An Australian man near the Capitol who was visiting with Jehovah’s Witnesses opened his eyes as wide as a satellite dish when told some details of the new law.
Yet there were no displays of triumph for gun owners here Tuesday that they had their way with the conservative Georgia legislature. Many expected to see a show of force on the Atlanta streets from guns rights advocates, but it never happened.
School systems in Georgia have been given the option of arming teachers, but most have said that is something they will not do, even with highly publicized shootings recently in California and Oregon and the December 2012 shootings at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 educators and children were killed.
Some Georgia Tech students staged a rally supporting guns on campus, but the state legislature refused to write into the new law a provision allowing students to carry concealed weapons at colleges. The Georgia Board of Regents, which governs university campuses, objected to the idea of students bearing arms.
The law said gun owners can carry into churches, but many churches have said they will ask their congregations to leave their weapons at home.
In Canton, 46 miles north of Atlanta in heavily Republican Cherokee County, sandwich shop owner Donna Compton shook her head with disgust at the new law. “So we’re allowing guns in bars,” she said. “Alcohol and guns do not mix. I’m sorry. This is not a good idea.”
So we’re allowing guns in bars. Alcohol and guns do not mix. I’m sorry. This is not a good idea.
Bar owners, of course, may refuse to serve patrons who enter with weapons. On private property, gun-carrying customers who refuse to leave may be arrested for trespassing, Henry said. It is overreaction, he said, to assume that patrons in a bar are suddenly going to start drawing on one another over a spilled beer.
He said each time a favorable gun bill is passed in Georgia, ownership goes up, and applications for licenses increase. That is what worries anti-gun advocates.
“You mean there are going to be more guns on the street now after we had a shooting this morning and one the day before that and one the day before that,” Compton said.
Her brother and shop co-owner, Mike DeLuca, remembered a time in Cherokee 40 years ago when every pickup truck had a rack in the rear window for a shotgun and the shotgun was usually in the rack. Now, he said, men with guns could unnerve a crowd, given all the gun violence in the news recently.
“We have First Friday here, and the show cars parade down the street, and we can get 5,000 people crammed into these little streets,” he said. “You could have just five people with a gun, and every mom would just be in a panic.”
There was a panic in neighboring Forsyth County this spring when a man with a pistol stuck into the back of his pants was walking around a youth baseball park. The county sheriff responded to 911 calls but said there was nothing he could do, since the man was within his rights. When the man started chortling on Internet chat boards about the disturbance he caused, Georgia Carry asked the man to stop.
“We told him that is not a good idea,” Henry said. “He deleted his posts.”