SAVANNAH, Ga. - Visitors to the Old Courthouse on Wright Square will soon have to pass through a metal detector installed in response to Georgia's expanded gun law that takes effect July 1.
The metal detector placed on April 24 in the front entrance of the building was borrowed at no cost from the Chatham County Courthouse on Montgomery Street. Officials are considering buying new equipment to beef up security at other county facilities as well.
"It deals with the new gun bill the governor signed into law," said Assistant County Manager Michael Kaigler. "We're going to start screening individuals who come into the buildings."
On April 17, Savannah aldermen approved the purchase of a metal detector and two X-ray scanners for $53,987, in addition to two turnstiles for $7,750, to be installed at Savannah City Hall. The city, too, has been testing a metal detector on loan from the county courthouse.
However, the city's security enhancements were in the works long before Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 60 into law on April 23.
"Improving security at public buildings has been a project we've been working on for several years now," said city spokesman Bret Bell. "It started with adding security guards to our public buildings about five years ago, and then we added surveillance cameras to our buildings."
In December, a 61-year-old Tybee Island man was arrested after authorities said he brought a loaded gun to a City Council meeting. Tybee Island currently does not have a metal detector at city hall, but a police officer is now stationed at meetings.
Meanwhile, local businesses are also making preparations for what's to come.
Patrons of Pinkie Master's Lounge, one of Savannah's best-known watering holes, should be prepared to keep their weapons out of the establishment, says owner Guy Kirk.
"I don't care how smart you are, alcohol changes peoples' attitudes," said Kirk, who on Wednesday put up "absolutely no firearms on property" signs. "I don't care if you're a cop. It changes your mind."
Among other provisions of the Safe Carry Protection Act - labeled the "guns everywhere" bill by opponents - licensed carriers, under some circumstances, will be allowed to take their firearms into bars, churches, schools and airports. But private property owners may declare their premises off-limits to guns, and firearms will remain prohibited inside government buildings that screen for weapons.
Violators, according to the law, cannot be arrested or fined more than $100 if they have a valid permit.
"This legislation will protect the constitutional rights of Georgians who have gone through a background check to legally obtain a Georgia Weapons Carry License," Deal said in a statement when he signed the bill. "Roughly 500,000 Georgia citizens have a permit of this kind, which is approximately 5 percent of our population."
Passage of the sweeping legislation gained national attention.
But a number of groups, including police, municipal and religious organizations, opposed the legislation on various grounds.
"This bill solves nothing, and it only creates the potential for more gun violence, not less, to say nothing of increasing political polarization in Georgia," Episcopal Bishop Scott Anson Benhase of the Diocese of Georgia said in a March joint statement with his Atlanta counterpart.
Catholic institutions statewide - before July 1 - will receive a policy outlining the prohibition of guns, except for law enforcement, according to Savannah Diocese Bishop Gregory Hartmayer.
Critics of the law say it's an overreach.
State Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah, told the New York Times it's an embarrassment to the state.
"I want to know what kind of religion these guys practice that they have to carry a gun to church," he told the newspaper.
On the other hand, State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, defends the law as a protection of the Second Amendment. Besides, he said, much of it deals with administrative issues.
Guns are already allowed in restaurants that serve alcohol, said Powell, chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
"Frankly, what's the difference between a restaurant that serves alcohol and a bar?" he asked.
"We didn't mandate that you can carry a weapon into a church. What we said is if a church, minister, deacons or whoever, if they want to allow someone to bring a weapon into that church, that's their business."
While a provision allowing guns on college campuses was left out, another controversial aspect of the law is its expansion of the right to use deadly force in self-defense under the state's so-called stand-your-ground defense.
But Ed Stone, a board member of GeorgiaCarry.org, an Atlanta-based guns-rights group, said those who carry firearms illegally can still be prosecuted under the law.
The stand-your-ground and new gun laws were the topics of discussion Wednesday night at a public discussion hosted by Savannah State University at the Coastal Georgia Center on Fahm Street. About 65 people attended the event that featured a panel of academics and attorneys, including Stone and District Attorney Meg Heap.
"Stand-your-ground law affects all of us and must be understood as part of a broader discussion or dialogue with citizens, academics, young people, public officials and other stake holders in our community," said Larry Stewart, a Savannah State associate professor of criminal justice.
Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com