Our absurd gun-safety debate

Posted May 7, 2018 2:02 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- As Georgia secretary of state for the past eight years, Brian Kemp has not exactly wowed people with his competence and judgment.

Even his fellow Republicans haven't been impressed with his bumbling performance in that less-than-complicated job, which is why Kemp is barely pulling 10 percent in the upcoming Republican race for governor.

So when Kemp decided that he needed to turn those numbers around and draw more attention to his candidacy, it was perfectly in character for him to do so by making a really dumb commercial.

To me, it's not the casually handled shotgun or implied threat to young Jake that makes the ad so dumb, although they certainly do make a contribution. What puts it over the top are the several pistols displayed on an end table to Kemp's right, the three rifles on the coffee table in front of him, the fourth standing behind him and the two AR-15-type rifles in the background.

These aren't guns as inanimate tools, neither inherently good or bad; they are guns presented as objects of veneration and as powerful symbols demanding deep, emotional loyalty.

Kemp is hardly the only GOP candidate scrambling to demonstrate that loyalty. The frontrunner in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, recently had to walk back a statement that he opposed passage of so-called "constitutional carry" legislation, the latest proposal from gun extremists in the state.

Under those proposed bills, Georgia's system for issuing and requiring permits to carry weapons in public -- already one of the most lax in the country -- would be abolished altogether, so that everybody could carry weapons everywhere with no background checks or other restrictions. Here's an excerpt from Cagle's statement in which he tried to backtrack on his initial opposition to that far-right proposal:

"First, Casey Cagle supports constitutional carry. He does not believe we should be required to get a government permit to exercise a right that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

"Second, when we enact constitutional carry legislation, we need to have an effective process in place to prevent convicted felons, mentally ill individuals and illegal immigrants from carrying firearms in our community. ... Law-abiding gun owners know that we don't need to allow felons to carry firearms in our neighborhoods and we need a way to stop them from doing it."

The contradiction between those two paragraphs is fundamental and cannot be logically reconciled. Once you create "an effective process to prevent convicted felons, mentally ill individuals and illegal immigrants from carrying firearms in our community," you have set up a government-run permit system that Cagle claims is unconstitutional.

Furthermore, a central feature of "constitutional carry" legislation is a provision that bars law enforcement from even asking whether a person carrying a firearm in public has a legal right to do so. So good luck trying to weed out the felons and the mentally ill. It becomes illegal for law enforcement to even try.

Overall, the debate over "constitutional carry" provides a perfect illustration of the tension between common-sense, rational and entirely constitutional gun-safety laws and the extremist gun proposals that are pushed by the gun lobby and are then embraced by Republican politicians who dare not do otherwise. It's just nuts to watch a small minority of gun extremists succeed in dictating policy to everybody else.

And how small is that minority?

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of Georgia Republicans conducted by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs produced the kind of results you'd expect. Among likely GOP primary voters, for example, 80 percent think Donald Trump is doing a good job; 77 percent say that a candidate's support for Trump will have an important impact on who they back in the primary. A total of 82 percent say illegal immigration is important or very important to them.

But when the question turns to gun safety, something unexpected happens. According to the poll, 46 percent of likely GOP primary voters support gun laws as they currently stand. Another 45 percent believe that gun laws should become more strict.

Just 7 percent of Republican voters say that gun laws should be made more lax. That would be the "constitutional carry" lobby, the group targeted by Kemp's ad and the group driving gun policy in this and other states.

Jay Bookman writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: jbookman(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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