Gun bill may get second life in Georgia Legislature

ATLANTA - One of former baseball great Yogi Berra's famous sayings is, "It ain't over till it's over."

While the ex-Yankee sage was referring to America's favorite pastime, the sentiment could just as easily apply to the General Assembly.

Bills that appear to be dead at the end of "Crossover Day," the annual deadline for legislation to pass either the House or Senate, have a way of springing back to life in the final days of legislative sessions.

This year, one of two gun bills lawmakers have been considering is the most high-profile prospect for resurrection.

The legislation, introduced into the Senate in January, would allow workers to leave registered guns locked inside their cars in their employers' parking lots.

It has the backing of the National Rifle Association, usually enough to ensure passage in Georgia.

Indeed, the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Rules Committee put it on the Senate calendar for Crossover Day.

But senators adjourned that night, March 27, without taking up the legislation.

Later, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, said it was his decision to pull it.

"I was not comfortable passing the bill as it was," he said. "It infringed on private property rights."

Republicans conflicted

Cagle's concern gets to the crux of what's hanging the bill up with the Senate's Republican majority.

It pits two causes championed by GOP lawmakers against each other: The right to bear arms contained in the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment and the sanctity of private property.

The NRA, long the prime guardian of gun rights in America, has been lobbying heavily in favor of the bill.

"This is a thoughtful and practical measure intended to preserve the integrity of right-to-carry laws in Georgia and to allow hardworking men and women to have an effective means of self-defense during their daily commute to and from work," Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said in a prepared statement.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, as an advocate for businesses, is working just as hard to defeat the bill.

"An employer ought to have a right to set terms for their workplace," said Joe Fleming, senior vice president of government affairs for the chamber.

The tug of war between the NRA and chamber has put Republican senators in a difficult position.

They could support the bill and defy a business organization they rely upon for campaign contributions, or oppose it and risk losing the NRA's influential support.

Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, reacted by lashing out at the NRA for a massive e-mail campaign to the group's members that he said amounted to bullying lawmakers.

Douglas said senators could be pro-gun rights and still vote against the Senate legislation.

"I think it's the wrong bill at the wrong time," he said the day before the measure was due to hit the Senate floor. "The state has no business telling someone what they can and can't have on their own properties.

"Once you cut through the rhetoric of the NRA, you see there's good reason for voting against this bill."

Fleming said Douglas' opposition is a bad sign for the bill.

"When somebody like John Douglas, a career military man with probably one of the strongest pro-NRA records, has concerns over this bill, it speaks volumes about the merits of the legislation," he said.

NRA unfazed

The NRA defended its tactics as necessary.

"While we are concerned that some referred to our effort to defend the merits of (the bill) as heavy handed, we are unrepentant," Cox said.

"Our objective was to counter a blatant campaign of misinformation."

Despite the apparent hard feelings, the two sides - at Cagle's request - have been meeting behind the scenes to look for a way to craft language that would be agreeable to the gun and business lobbies.

It's not too late. If they can reach an agreement, the bill could be attached as an amendment to a related measure that would allow motorists to carry their registered guns anywhere they choose inside their cars.

The second bill passed the House early in the session and won the Senate Rules Committee's approval last month.

So, there's a legislative avenue available for the guns-at-the-workplace bill.

But that doesn't mean it's going to see the light of day this year. Both sides appear determined not to give in on their positions.

Fleming said the chamber won't sign off on anything that reduces private property rights.

Cox said the NRA has no problem waiting until next year, or even longer, to achieve its ends.

"It's a pretty high hurdle to overcome," Cagle said. "We'll see what happens."