SHOTS

07.01.14

‘Guns in Bars’ Bill Kicks Off in Georgia

Fear and confusion reigned in Georgia as the state’s controversial gun law came into effect and bar owners admitted they didn’t know what to do.

“Doing shots” in Georgia bars may have a whole new meaning when HB60 goes into effect Tuesday. The Safe Carry Protection Act, also known as the “guns everywhere bill,” broadly expands the places where Georgians can carry firearms to include municipal buildings, public libraries, schools, churches, unsecured areas of airports, and bars. 

While churches and schools have to opt in to the law for the expanded carry provisions to apply to them, bar owners must opt out of the legislation by posting a “no-guns” sign or removing heat-packing patrons themselves.

“The onus is now on the bar owner,” said Alisa Cleek, a partner with Elarbee Thompson law firm in Atlanta who co-chairs the firm’s restaurant advisory group. “If you don’t want weapons on your premises you have to take steps to make sure customers know that. You don’t get to sit back this time.”

Cleek said she’s seen significant confusion about how the law will apply to bars, but Georgia Attorney General Sam Olen’s office has declined to give specific guidance on bar owners’ rights and responsibilities under the new law because of potential litigation in the future. 

“The answer is there is no answer,” said one highly placed state employee about the specifics of the bill.

With hours left until it went into effect, most bar owners, managers and bartenders across the state contacted by The Daily Beast were unaware that the law would go into effect Tuesday. Some knew the bill had been introduced, but did not know it had passed the legislature. Others knew it was going into effect soon, but did not know what they needed to do to keep guns out of their businesses if that’s what they wanted to do.

“That’s a good question,” became the most frequent response Monday when asked what a bar’s gun policy would be on Tuesday.

Among the handful of bars that knew the bill had passed and would go live Tuesday, all brought up the obvious problems of having guns in the same place where people would be drinking, in some cases heavily, late into the night.

“It just seems like something that could lead to trouble,” said Jonathan List at Moe’s and Joe’s, a local Atlanta fixture that sells Pabst Blue Ribbon by the $6.50 pitcher. List said the bar’s owners will likely post a “no guns” sign for customers once the law goes into effect. 

"I'm a gun owner myself, but I don’t take my gun when I go drinking because I think it’s a bad idea.”

Down the street at Limerick Junction, an Irish bar with a clientele of “locals, young professionals and young not-so-professionals,” manager Josh Jacoe said the bar had not finalized its gun policy, but added,  “Most of our gun-owning patrons are smart enough to know if they’re going out drinking to leave their guns at home.”

But proponents of expanding carry rights to include bars said the change makes sense because Georgia already allows guns in restaurants that serve alcohol. 

“If you walk into Applebee’s there’s a bar right in the middle of the place. Is that a bar or a restaurant?” said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry. “We want to get all of the vagaries out of the law so that if it’s private property, the owner has the right to ask me to leave, but the sheriff shouldn’t arrest me if I didn’t know I was breaking a law.”

Henry added that opponents’ warnings of increased crime inside bars won’t come to pass.

“The gun prohibitionists are real good at blowing everything out of proportion.”

“The gun prohibitionists are real good at blowing everything out of proportion,” Henry said, pointing to activists’ dire predictions several years ago when Georgia legalized guns in restaurants. “They said servers would get shot if a steak was too rare or there would be a gun draw over the last chicken wing. It just hasn’t happened and it’s not going to happen this time.”

But Piyali Cole, the head of the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action, which opposed the bill, said the new language allowing guns in bars will make Georgians less safe and pointed to a recent string of fights leading to shootouts in Georgia parking lots as an example. 

“Now those shootouts can happen without ever leaving the bar,” Cole said. “That to us it is hugely frightening. We’ve talked to bar owners and it’s frightening for them, too.” 

Cole said she’s encountered the same confusion over the law that Alisa Cleek reported and that she has encountered widespread opposition to the bill, even among Republicans and gun owners, who think the new law is too expansive. 

“The bill is monstrous. We fought it tooth and nail,” she said. “We know the public does not want this type of legislation to go through.”  To Cole’s point, a poll conducted for the Atlanta Journal Constitution two months before the law went into effect showed 59% of Georgians oppose it. The bill passed the state House and Senate this year with bipartisan support, including the vote of Democratic Senate Sen. Jason Carter. Carter’s target in this year's governor’s race, Gov. Nathan Deal, signed the bill in April.

“I know we are supposed to believe that everybody walking around with a gun is normal behavior, but I reject that,” Cole said. “This is not normal behavior, nor a visual we want our kids to see. I don’t want my son to see his teacher packing. When we see people walking and flaunting guns out in the open, it’s frightening.”

“So are we afraid?” Cole said of Georgians living under the new law. “Yes, we’re afraid.”