Despite a statewide reopening, residents in one Georgia county are still unable to legally obtain firearms-carry licenses after a federal judge allowed local authorities to shut down the permitting process, sparking a legal showdown.
District Court judge Steve Jones ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the state's permit law or the county's implementation of it during the coronavirus pandemic. Gun-rights activists have vowed to appeal the decision. The case has gained renewed energy as the county has refused to reopen the vetting office even as Republican governor Brian Kemp has lifted pandemic restrictions.
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"The permitting process is still closed," Alan Gottlieb, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, told the Washington Free Beacon. "We are filing an immediate appeal."
The court ruled that a local resident did not have standing to challenge county probate judge Keith Wood's decision to close down the permitting process. Jones added that concerns about social distancing outweighed the plaintiffs' claims that the policy violated the Second Amendment, noting that "the state and county have a considerable public health interest in curtailing normal activities to stop the exponential spread of a deadly virus."
Second Amendment activists argue that all individuals have standing when government authorities infringe on their constitutional rights. Because Georgia requires a gun-carry permit to carry firearms, Cherokee County has violated the rights of its residents, according to the Firearms Policy Coalition, another plaintiff in the case.
"The Constitution explicitly protects the fundamental human right to bear arms, especially for self-defense. Governments cannot eliminate the right of law-abiding adults to carry handguns for self-defense in public, which is all the more pertinent in these troubled times," FPC president Brandon Combs said in a statement.
Federal courts have split on the constitutionality of shutdowns that target gun stores or the firearm-permitting process. A federal judge overturned a Massachusetts executive order that closed gun stores and ordered the state to reopen them by Saturday. Two other federal judges upheld gun-store shutdowns in parts of California in early April. The outcome of those cases could answer how far emergency powers can curtail constitutionally protected rights—especially if the Supreme Court is forced to weigh in.
The issue could resolve itself before the legal process has time to play out, however, as states like Georgia begin phased reopenings. A spokesman for Gov. Kemp, a defendant in the Cherokee County suit, said he couldn't comment on an ongoing case but directed questions about the permitting process to the state's supreme court.
Jane O. Hansen, a public information officer for the Supreme Court of Georgia, told the Free Beacon that courts in the state would continue to operate only on a limited basis until at least June 12.
"The Chief Justice just announced he will be signing an order that will extend the Statewide Judicial Emergency he first announced March 14 until June 12," Hansen said in an email. "Under that order, the courts will be asked to bring back as many court services as they possibly can—regardless of whether or not something was once deemed essential or non-essential—either through videoconferencing or by strictly adhering to public health guidelines. The ability of courts to do that, of course, will be based on individual courts' capacities. And that will vary around the state, based on their budget, staff, physical building, etc."
Gottlieb said his organization will pursue the suit, regardless of whether the permitting office returns, in order to set a precedent that bars local governments from pursuing similar shutdowns in the future.
"We want a court verdict on it," he said. "It'll bounce around for a while, but eventually we're going to win."
Neither Cherokee County nor Wood responded to requests for comment.