The Georgia House’s last-day inaction on a contentious gun rights bill took many by surprise.

This story also appeared in Georgia Health News

That included opponents of House Bill 218 such as state Sen. Michelle Au. The Johns Creek Democrat not only opposed the gun rights expansion, but sponsored her own legislation on background checks and waiting periods for gun buyers. Her proposals didn’t get any traction in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

Sen. Michelle Au

Au told GHN on Friday that she was “surprised in a good way’’ by House Speaker David Ralston’s comments, after the legislative session ended, about how he let the gun rights bill die by not bringing it up for a vote Wednesday night.

Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said that recent mass shootings in the United States, including a killing spree targeting spas in metro Atlanta on March 16, played a factor in his decision not to call up House Bill 218 for a vote.

“Frankly, I thought we needed to be very, very sensitive to any gun legislation,’’ he told reporters. “We’re less than two weeks out from two major mass killings. That heightens my level of sensitivity to that.’’

Au, a physician, said Ralston’s comments show “a remarkable amount of insight, especially in a state where the [gun rights] conversation is so entrenched. These conversations [about guns] can move the needle on the issue just a little bit.”

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston answers reporter questions in a pre-session briefing in the state capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. (Laura Corley/Stanley R. Boxer) Credit: Laura Corley/Stanley R. Boxer

Ralston said this week that he had not had a chance to analyze all the gun rights bill’s provisions and their potential impact.

House Bill 218 would have required Georgia to recognize other states’ concealed weapons permits, and would have prevented a governor from taking away ammunition, other weapons like crossbows, and reloading equipment such as speedloaders or magazines, during a state of emergency.

The bill also would have required local governments to hold auctions at least every 12 months to sell off weapons that had come into the possession of authorities. In addition, it would have allowed probate courts, which handle gun-carry permits at the county level, to accept applications for them by online methods or by mail. And the measure would bar local governments from closing or limiting the operations of shooting ranges.

Rep. Mandi Ballinger

Sponsored by a Cherokee County gun rights stalwart, GOP Rep. Mandi Ballinger, the legislation moved through the House and then the Senate, where it was supported by Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leader, Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia Republican. But because it was amended in the Senate before passing there, the bill needed a final OK from the House. On Wednesday evening, however, House Bill 218 was never brought up for a vote.

Among those reacting with surprise to the final result on the bill was a strong supporter of the legislation: Jerry Henry of Georgia Carry, a prominent guns rights organization.

Jerry Henry of Georgia Carry

“We’re just totally disappointed in the Republican leadership of the House,” Henry told GHN.

“I was surprised and then I wasn’t — it’s what they’ve done to us for the past four years,’’ he said. “We thought it would go through — we were told all along that it would — there was every indication it would go through.”

Henry said Ballinger and other bill supporters were standing in front of Ralston at the end of the night, trying to get him to take up the bill.

“The good news for the speaker is he won’t have to waste time asking for an endorsement [from the gun rights group] in the next round.” Henry said, adding that such an endorsement wouldn’t come. “The NRA is upset as well.’’

Ralston said Wednesday about the bill’s inability to get final approval: “I’ll take any criticism that comes and we’ll deal with it. There’s always another day to talk about these things.’’

Politics and competing philosophies

Au, a Chinese-American, warned the day before the spa shootings in the Atlanta area about violence against Asian-Americans, based on several highly publicized incidents around the nation. Six of the eight people killed in the Georgia shootings were Asian women.

She said before the Senate took up bills Monday that “gun safety should not be a partisan issue. Gun safety is a public health issue.”

The issue of guns is “unnecessarily politicized,” Au told GHN. Not all gun violence involves mass shootings, she said. “There are other things like suicide, domestic abuse, crime.’’

From a public health point of view, she said, a state can take small steps along with strategies to increase gun safety. A heavier lift would be needed, she said, for proposals to impose waiting periods for gun purchases. The requirement to wait, she said, provides a cooling-off interval for people feeling the impulse to commit acts of violence, such as suicide, revenge attacks and domestic violence.

Au said her plan is to work with community groups to get more public support behind her bills. Calling representatives really does work, she added. “We notice when we have a huge volume of calls about one issue. 2022 is an election year.”

This story available through a news partnership with Georgia Health News.

Andy Miller, Senior Editor for Kaiser Family Foundation Health News, has been a health care journalist for 29 years. Miller graduated from Duke in 1973 and received a master’s in education from Duke...

Rebecca Grapevine is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Georgia. She has written about public health in both India and the United States, and she holds a doctorate in history from the University...