Weapons bill signed by governor

By Justin Reedy

A bill that would allow a defense for people who accidentally bring weapons into airports and other public places ? if they turn the weapon in to police before being caught n will soon become law.

House Bill 397, which was introduced by state Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, came about when officials wondered whether or not to prosecute people who forgot about a weapon, brought it to an airport or bus station, and then notified the authorities.

Trying to prosecute those offenders, many of who 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.

So Martin and Barnes got together with the Atlanta Police Department's then-airport precinct commander, Major M.L. Williams, as well as other airport, train and bus officials to draft a policy.

"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."

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."

Hampton resident Doug Craig, a gun owner and avid supporter of Second Amendment rights, was glad to hear about the new policy. Though he doesn't think the state should require permits for carrying a concealed weapon, he does admit that allowing permit holders the chance to do the right thing is a good change.

"At least it's a move in the right direction," Craig said. "It's good that they're moving away from punishing people who are trying to do the right thing."

The bill benefited from bipartisan support in the Georgia General Assembly this year, Barnes said.

"I've been working on it for three years now," he said. "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."

Though the bill only stipulates that it creates an "affirmative defense" 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 prevent people from 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."