ATHENS – Georgia became an open-carry state after lawmakers passed legislation in 2022, allowing gun owners to display handguns in public without a background check or permit. One year later, a bill requiring firearms to be safely secured away from children stalled before the 2023 legislative session ended.
Firearms are the leading cause of death among children and teens in the U.S., and Georgia has one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the country. But the lack of gun regulation in Georgia racks the state’s adolescent death toll up to about 133 losses each year.
House Bill 161, called the Pediatric Health Safe Storage Act, is intended help prevent accidental gunfire and intentional suicides among children and teens 18 and under, by requiring gun owners to store their weapons in an inaccessible place so that a minor could not easily get to it unsupervised. Failure to safely secure a firearm could result in a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $5,000.
“All it does is say that any gun that could be accessed by a minor needs to be safely secured,” said Rep. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat and the leading sponsor of the bill. “And that’s it. So it doesn’t ban anything. It just creates an expectation, a culture of what responsible gun ownership looks like.”
But Au and her fellow Democratic lawmakers who signed onto the bill are swimming against a Republican tide of recent state laws loosening gun restrictions. The Republican-led Georgia House Public Safety & Homeland Security 2-A Subcommittee heard the bill, which Au said in March was a win in itself.
But at that same hearing, Alex Dorr, political director for advocacy at Georgia Gun Owners, said mandating storage lockers or trigger guards could waste precious time in a home invasion scenario.
“If you’re like most law-abiding Georgians, you’d probably just reach over and grab your handgun – or in my case, my AR pistol with a stocked pistol brace,” Dorr said. “I’ll go do what needs to be done to defend my family.”
Au’s gun security bill can still pass in its present form during the 2024 legislative session. But Au is now taking state GOP lawmakers to task on the issue during the off season. In a newsletter distributed early last week, Au called upon her constituents to speak up about the importance of the bill to tell gatekeeping legislators to get on board with safe storage laws, like other states such as California, Colorado and Illinois.
“Currently in Georgia, there is some regulation that if a gun is accessed by a minor and used to commit a crime, then there’s a penalty,” Au said. “But this is a public health bill that aims to create an affirmative requirement for storing guns, to prevent children from accessing it in the first place, so that we don’t have to pursue a penalty. Our goal is to prevent the injury.”
Au, an anesthesiologist, said her goal is to reduce the number of Georgia children who die young in an accidental shooting.
“The top thing that people always ask about is school shootings,” Au said. “And the research has shown that most often when a minor accesses a gun, it is most commonly accessed either from their home, or the home of a family member or friend.”
Au’s newsletter circulated last week as Georgia public safety officials attended the 2023 School Safety Conference held in Athens. Much of the three-day program consisted of de-escalation courses for educators and law enforcement, as well as panels on school violence and mental health awareness.
Dept. Tony Lowe from Warren County Sheriff’s Office said during the conference that even with the training, there is no blueprint for preventing school shootings. Lowe said the bottom line is everyone could “just be more proactive.”
“You gotta think safety from sunup to sundown, not only with the instance of an active shooter in the school, but maybe there’s a domestic incident involving a parent,” Lowe said. “There’s all types of incidents that go into play. Everybody just needs to change their mindset about safety all around.”
Au said her bill would not only help reduce school shooting incidents, but could also help prevent teen suicide as well by fostering awareness of adolescent mental health problems.
“Behaviors that we see in teenagers, they do it in the moment of passion, in the moment of impulse,” Au said. “And that may not be the case later on. So introducing one extra layer of complication, in terms of them getting a destructive tool, can be enough to break that chain of impulsive behavior.”
Au is seeking to have the bill re-assigned to the Public Health Committee for next year’s General Assembly, but said the topic of keeping children safe should not have to be up for political debate.
“Somehow when it comes to the issue of gun violence,” Au said. “It becomes a political issue that gets in the way of a goal I think we can all agree on, which is preventing kids from dying.”
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