Guns in schools, churches and shops in Georgia

Officers outside the Georgia courthouse where heavily armed gunman Dennis Marx was shot dead in June. Photo / AP
Officers outside the Georgia courthouse where heavily armed gunman Dennis Marx was shot dead in June. Photo / AP

It is nearly midnight at the Electric Cowboy, a factory-sized dance club off the motorway. Inside, patrons are downing margaritas and singing Western-themed karaoke. Outside, in the car park shared with a neighbouring Hooters restaurant, two gun owners are debating whether it's a good idea to allow firearms into a bar.

"I don't think deadly weapons should be mixed with alcohol," says Justin Gillis, a hulking man in a black cowboy hat who keeps a gun in his car but would not bring it inside. Dennis Kast, a 27-year-old wearing a Bill Murray T-shirt, argues that criminals will bring weapons into the bar no matter what. "Your right to defend yourself doesn't stop when you've had a drink," he says. Concealed, legally, under his T-shirt is a loaded Kahr CW9 9mm pistol.

Their debate isn't a theoretical one. This week, a sweeping new gun law came into force in the southern state of Georgia, allowing for weapons inside bars and nearly anywhere else.

Entitled the Safe Carry Protection Act but nicknamed the "guns everywhere" law, the legislation allows for guns in churches and parts of airports, and authorises school districts to allow teachers to carry weapons in the classroom.

It also strengthens the rights of gun owners and forbids police from stopping people to check their gun permit. So if a man is walking through a crowded store with a weapon on his belt, officers cannot ask for proof his gun is legal.

Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman left with brain damage after a 2010 gun massacre in Arizona, called the law "the most extreme gun bill in America". But its supporters see it as just a small step towards restoring the people's constitutional right to bear arms.

"Being able to choose whether or not to carry a gun is an integral part of being an American," says Buddy Simpson, a member of the Georgia Carry gun group that helped pass the law.

We meet near the town of Kennesaw, where a 1982 law mandates every head of household to own a gun.

Mr Simpson, who owns more than a dozen, carries a Springfield pistol with a 17-round magazine. The 47-year-old landscaper carries a gun at all times, except on the few occasions that Georgia law forces him to (for example, at some government buildings).

In 2000, Mr Simpson was shot during an armed robbery. At the time, Georgia law meant he had been forced to leave his pistol in the car. "I am not going to be a victim again," he says. But opponents say that more guns on the streets will lead to more victims. The day the law went into effect, two men fell into an argument in a convenience store, leading one to pull his gun on the other. He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

"No one got shot but it shows how guns escalate mundane arguments into life-threatening situations," says Wendy Wittmayer from the gun-control group Moms Demand Action. The AR-15 rifle used by Adam Lanza to murder 20 schoolchildren in Sandy Hook was also legally purchased. As were the guns James Holmes used to murder 12 people in a Colorado cinema.

Would Georgia Carry ever accept limits on guns to try to cut the 30,000 gun deaths nationwide each year? No, says Mr Simpson. "It's not worthing giving up those liberties for something that's rarer than Halley's Comet coming around." He argues that mass shooters deliberately target "gun-free zones" such as schools and the answer instead is to arm teachers.

Mrs Wittmayer, a former nursery school teacher, shakes her head at the idea that a teacher could stop have stopped Adam Lanza or the 15 other young men who have opened fire in schools since Sandy Hook. "If more guns made us safer, the US would be the safest nation in the world," she says.

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