By Justin Reedy
A bill being considered by the Georgia General Assembly would allow a defense under the law for people who accidentally bring weapons into airports and other public places if they turn the weapon in to police before being caught.
House Bill 397, which was introduced by state Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, had its origins in another piece of legislation Barnes and other local officials drafted three years ago dealing with security at transportation terminals. One problem officials ran into was whether or not to prosecute people who forgot about a weapon, brought it to an airport or bus station, and then notified the authorities.
Throwing the book at those defendants, many of whom were arrested at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, seemed like punishing people who were trying to do the right thing, Clayton County Solicitor General Keith Martin said. While trying to decide what to do about the issue and requesting advice from other prosecutors around the state, Martin came to a realization.
During a conversation with Maj. M.L. Williams, who was then in charge of the Atlanta Police Department's airport precinct, Williams reminded Martin that officials at the world's largest airports don't turn to small towns for guidance.
"Maj. Williams said that when the folks who run Los Angeles International Airport, or Charles DeGaulle International Airport, or Chicago-O'Hare International Airport have a question, they call Hartsfield, because we're the busiest airport in the world," Martin said.
That's when Martin and Williams got together with Barnes and other airport, train and bus officials around the state to draft a policy which would remove that negative incentive from people making an effort to keep transportation terminals weapon-free. That policy would allow people who forgot to take a gun out of their luggage to turn in that weapon to police or security personnel as soon as they remembered it, as long as they did so before authorities discovered it.
"What we're doing (under the current policy) is penalizing them unless they try and go forward and put the gun on the plane," Martin explained. "We're trying to keep guns off the planes, or buses or trains, and it seems we have a reverse incentive. Hopefully this will put it right."
Barnes included the provision in his Transportation Security Act during a previous session of the legislature, but the bill ran into snags and that portion was eventually removed. This time, he has reintroduced the policy on its own as HB 397, which he engrossed to prevent any unwanted amendments from slowing the bill down.
Barnes is optimistic about its future, saying the bill has bipartisan support. It recently passed the House unanimously and is now being considered by the Senate.
"It's a good bill," Barnes said. "I've been working on it for three years now. It's the only bill I've seen at the state legislature that has the support of both the National Rifle Association and Georgians for Gun Safety."
The change in policy would help prevent the conviction of people who make a simple mistake and try to correct it, Barnes said.
"Up at Hartsfield, we had a woman with her children who was arrested because she had her husband's gun in her bag," he said. "I don't think the people of Georgia are interested in arresting people who make an honest mistake in not securing their firearm."
Though the bill only stipulates that it creates an "affirmative defense" under the law for such people, Martin said this would basically keep most of these situations out of the court system.
"All it does is give police a choice when these people come to them to turn in their weapon," Martin said. "If it was done at a practicable moment, they could choose to arrest or not, and then we would have the choice as well to prosecute or not."
This bill would also not give people a ticket out of being punished for carrying a gun in blatant disregard of the law, Barnes said.
"I would warn anybody who would use this to carry their gun all the time and then say, ?Here it is,' when they get caught that this won't help them," Barnes said. "This is truly for people who make an honest mistake. As the person who wrote this legislation, I can say that the intent is not to allow people to carry their guns to public gatherings."