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Police: Not much will change with new gun law

COVINGTON — A recent dispute over whether a man could carry a gun in a local Waffle House highlighted what could be issues for law enforcement, business owners and citizens to address when Georgia’s new gun legislation takes effect next month.

The manager of the Waffle House on Brown Bridge Road called the Newton County Sheriff’s Office just before 4 a.m. Sunday when a customer walked in wearing a visible pistol.

“Management of the restaurant advised the patron that their company did not allow weapons inside the establishment, but the subject continually refused to take his weapon off and out of the restaurant,” the incident report states. “The complainant told the subject that she was gong to call the sheriff’s department, and according to her, he said, ‘Good.’”

NCSO Investigator Jeff Alexander said the man eventually decided to take the gun and place it in his car and the incident ended peacefully.

“The deputy handled this situation extremely well. This had a very good outcome,” he said.

Had the man insisted on carrying the weapon, however, he could have been charged – although not with a weapons offense, but with criminal trespass.

“If you go into a business, you will not get locked up for carrying a gun – that’s private property,” said Covington Police Department Lt. Mark Jones.

According to authorities, if a local business decides that it does not want a person in their business, they can ask them to leave. If that person refuses, he can be charged with criminal trespass.

On July 1, a new Georgia law – House Bill 60 – will go into effect that widens some of the parameters for carrying weapons.

Conyers Police Department Officer Kim Lucas said that people can carry weapons just about anywhere except nuclear power facilities, government buildings where there is a security checkpoint – such as a metal detector – manned by at least one officer and schools, unless a parent is dropping off or picking up a child.

People can also carry guns into churches, unless the church leadership prohibits parishioners from carrying. Just as with a private business that decides whether or not to allow patrons to bring in guns, churches can make their own policies.

“Other than that, you are welcome to carry if you have a permit,” Lucas said.

She said that a person must have a gun permit to carry a handgun, unless that person is hunting or sport shooting.

“If you are walking down the street, with your gun on your hip, you have to have a permit. However, you could walk down the street with an unloaded gun in an enclosed case without a permit,” Lucas said.

“If you are in your home, place of business, in a car that is registered to you and are 18 years or older, you can legally carry a weapon,” Jones said.

Law enforcement agencies are in the process of being trained on the new law to ensure they enforce it properly. The Conyers Police Department completed training for its officers on HB 60 this week, and the Covington Police Department has likewise completed in-house training on the new law. Covington Police Department Capt. Craig Treadwell said the department is awaiting further interpretation of the law from the District Attorney’s Office.

For example, Lucas in Conyers said that while someone carrying a weapon – defined as a handgun or a knife – needs a permit, someone could walk down the street without a permit if they were carrying a long gun, such as a shotgun or rifle.

“Are we going to get 911 calls? Yes, we are. Are we going to respond? Yes, we are. However, we can’t necessarily ask for a permit,” she said. “We are taking steps to educate our officers and going through various scenarios. Our ultimate responsibility is for the safety of all our citizens and to make sure we don’t violate anyone’s rights.”

When the law goes into effect next month, many law enforcement officers are bracing to receive more calls from people who want clarification on the law or who are concerned someone may be walking around with a gun illegally.

“I don’t see a whole bunch of folks carrying guns,” said NCSO Investigator Alexander. “While this is a gun-friendly society in Newton County, this is not the wild West. Everybody who is not toting a gun now, I don’t think that as of July 1 they will be toting a gun either.”

Treadwell said law enforcement officers “support wholeheartedly the 2nd Amendment.”

“The laws in Georgia concerning carrying weapons have always been vague and this legislation is trying to clarify them,” he said. “There is still some confusion and we will be working our way through this, but if we are going to err, we’re going to err on the side of people’s rights.