As It Happens·Q&A

Georgia bill that loosens gun laws a 'slap in the face' after mass shooting, says senator

"We've heard people from our community reaching out to us, asking us to please do something, please protect them," says Senator Michelle Au. "And instead, they decided to pass a law that loosens gun restrictions."

Democratic Senator Michelle Au says Bill 218 increases the number of guns in circulation in her state

'It's not a safety bill at all. It's a bill that makes it easier to buy and own guns,' says Dr. MIchelle Au, a Democratic senator in Georgia. (Georgia General Assembly)

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A Democratic senator from Georgia says a bill that loosens gun laws is a step firmly in the wrong direction — especially for a state still reeling from this month's mass shooting that killed eight people.

Bill 218 passed in the Georgia Senate on Monday, 34-18.

It comes fewer than two weeks after eight people were shot and killed, most of them women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area massage parlours.

The bill now heads back to Georgia's House for more debate. 

Sen. Michelle Au outlined her concerns with it to As It Happens host Carol Off.

What message do you think Republican lawmakers in Georgia are sending with this legislation?

Honestly, I think this piece of legislation, which was House Bill 218 that we just passed yesterday, is a real slap in the face to the communities here in Georgia that have still been reeling and going through a lot of grief about this mass shooting that we just had on March 16.

We've heard people from our community reaching out to us, asking us to please do something, please protect them, make them feel safer. Please enact more gun safety legislation. And instead, they decided to pass a law that loosens gun restrictions and makes our communities less safe.

Can you give us a sense of what's in this bill? How is it loosening gun restrictions?

There are a few things in this bill that are problematic. 

The primary piece is that it allows any person licensed to carry a firearm in other states to carry a firearm in Georgia. This is a reciprocity bill. So people who have a concealed handgun permit from any other state, regardless of how lax those other states' permits are, are allowed to carry into Georgia. And it just basically increases the volume of guns of dubious permitting that are allowed to be in Georgia at any time.

So that is the first piece of it. The second piece of this bill that I think is problematic is that... it imposes restrictions during a state of emergency. Now, obviously, this is pertinent because we're under a state of emergency now. 

Now, what this law actually says is that it limits the governor's ability to restrict any number of things related to guns, including closing or limiting operations of gun shops or shooting ranges, limiting the ability to transact any sort of gun sales during this period of time, regardless of what else is going on. It seems very questionable to have this sort of bill that limits the governor's ability to keep our community safer.

But again that's sort of the general thrust here. It's not a safety bill. It's a bill that makes it easier to buy and own guns.

People wait in a line to enter Retting Guns in Culver City, Calif., on March 15, as sales of firearms and ammunition spike in North America over fears of the spread of the coronavirus. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

Georgia Sen. Bo Hatchett said that this is a Second Amendment protection bill that further recognises Georgia's commitment to protect its citizens and their Second Amendment rights. So,  given the timing, two weeks after this mass shooting in Atlanta, what do you think that tells us about what he's saying?

I think when your legislative focus is an effort to protect these, quote, Second Amendment rights, versus protecting your citizenry, especially in the wake of a mass shooting where people are really still recovering and processing their grief from this, that is bad timing.

That's bad messaging. And that's really not what we were elected to come here to do. 

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Can you give us a sense of the Atlanta shooter? I know he bought a pistol the day of the shooting itself. There is no waiting period in Georgia for buying a weapon. Where did he and how did he obtain the weapons he used in order to carry out this mass murder?

The investigation is still ongoing, so I don't want to speak too much about that and give law enforcement the space and time they need to do good work. But you are correct that this gunman purchased his firearm on the same day of the shooting. 

So that morning he bought a gun. And by that evening, he had used it to kill eight people. By my understanding, he did buy it at a licensed gun shop. So he would have undergone a background check, one presumes, if he went through this standard channel.

However, as you noted, there is no waiting period for deciding to buy a gun. So that, in terms of gun safety legislation, is something that some of my Democratic colleagues and I are trying to work on. Because when you have a waiting period, what it does is it allows us to build in a cooling-off period.

[It's] for guarding against impulsive acts of violence such as mass shootings [which] are the most conspicuous, obviously. But the more common types of impulsive violence we see are interpersonal violence, domestic violence and suicide. 

You said elsewhere that this epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. is not new, and you implore your community and fellow legislators not to let this moment go by. This sentiment we have heard so many times, this imploring of legislators to respond to it — and yet nothing changes, or very little changes. Why do you think that is?

I think that people in this country tend to view gun safety as a political issue, right? How I would like us to start approaching it is not from the point of view that this is a political or a partisan issue, but that this is a public health issue. 

It's motivation to keep up the pressure, because when you see that things do change, you realise that you have to play the long game and not be discouraged or frustrated.- Sen. Michelle Au

If you had another public health risk that affected 300 people per day, if you had another public health risk that had a fatality rate of 30 per cent … we would be looking at that problem and we would be getting research on it, getting people involved, in how do we make this better? How do we mitigate this risk?

When the public health risk is gun violence, it doesn't mean we can step away from it. 

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Given the tremendous resistance there is to arguments about gun control, do you think you'll get much traction with your arguments?

So, look, I'm not naive to the fact that I live in America where these types of discussions about guns are highly entrenched. I'm also not naive to the fact I live in the state of Georgia, which does have a very strong culture of what they call gun rights.

However, I do think that views that we view as entrenched or immutable are not so over time. And all you do have to look at is the political landscape that we've seen here in the state of Georgia, even over the past four, six, 10 years. We never thought that we'd elect two Democratic senators out of the state of Georgia. We thought it would be impossible for this deep red state to elect a Democratic president. But we did just that in November.

So I think that it is overly fatalistic to think that things never change, though I understand why people feel that way, and I've certainly felt that way in the past. 

But it's motivation to keep up the pressure, because when you see that things do change, you realise that you have to play the long game and not be discouraged or frustrated when things don't change immediately, but just to keep at it until we start to see the change that we want.


Written by Kate McGillivray with files from CBC News and the Associated Press. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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