For a brief moment following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, it seemed America might respond by strengthening its gun laws.
Five days after 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage claimed the lives of 20 children and six teachers, President Barack Obama unveiled a working group led by the Vice-President, Joe Biden, which was tasked with developing “real reforms” to prevent gun violence.
A year later, US states had between them passed 39 laws to strengthen gun control. Yet according to The New York Times, during the same period 70 laws were passed to weaken it. Mr Obama concluded his 2013 State of the Union address with an emotional appeal for a reduction in gun violence. In his 2014 address, however, the subject merited a mere two sentences.
Now, to the disappointment and disbelief of gun-control campaigners, the tide appears to be turning back the pro-gun lobby’s way. On Thursday night, Georgia’s state House of Representatives passed a pro-gun bill by a landslide 112-58 vote, allowing people to carry firearms in bars, restaurants, churches, airports and primary school classrooms.
One gun control organisation christened the Georgia legislation the “Guns Everywhere” bill. Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS), the group founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – who was herself critically injured in a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011 – has described it as “the most extreme gun bill in America”.
Georgia’s Republican Governor, Nathan Deal, is expected to sign the law, which will offer religious leaders the choice to allow guns into their places of worship.
Should a church decide not to allow firearms on their premises, those who violate the ban will face a maximum fine of just $100 (£60).
The bill permits gun owners to carry loaded firearms in bars, as long as they don’t consume any alcohol. Bar owners who would prefer their patrons not to carry weapons must display a sign to that effect on the door.
Under the new law, any local school district that deems firearms a suitable deterrent against attack can appoint staff members to carry guns in schools.
Georgia citizens will be allowed to tote their weapons in libraries, sports grounds and youth centres. Those with a firearms permit will even go unpenalised if they’re found with a gun at a security checkpoint in an airport.
The bill’s opponents also claim it expands the controversial Stand Your Ground law, which allows citizens to defend themselves with deadly force if they feel they are threatened with serious harm.
The new law could, its critics say, allow convicted felons and others who are carrying a gun without a permit to use the Stand Your Ground defence.
Pia Carusone, executive director of ARS, commented: “Governor Deal has to decide if he wants to allow guns in [security] lines at the country’s busiest airport, force community school boards into bitter, divisive debates about whether they should allow guns in their children’s classrooms, and broaden the conceal carry eligibility to people who have previously committed crimes with guns…
“Thousands of Georgians and tens of thousands of Americans will continue to show they are tired of the gun lobby advancing its extreme agenda at the expense of their families’ safety.”
The bill’s supporters, by contrast, were jubilant. Jerry Henry, director of the pro-gun group Georgia Carry, said the bill’s passage was “a big win for us,” but said that his organisation would continue to call for further relaxation of gun laws next year.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) said in a statement that the Georgia bill was an “historic victory for the Second Amendment”, the oft-disputed section of the US Constitution which protects the right of citizens “to keep and bear arms”.
Georgia is one of many states where calls for greater gun control have met with a sharp backlash. Across the south and west of the United States, several Republican-held houses have passed similar, if less sweeping, laws since 2012.
Last month, the South Carolina legislature passed a bill allowing people to carry concealed weapons in bars and restaurants. Both Oklahoma and Idaho have passed bills permitting firearms on colleges and university campuses.
Lawmakers in Indiana are considering a bill to allow guns to be kept in locked cars on school property.
And yet, some states have learnt different lessons from the violence in Newtown. Last October, California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, signed 10 new bills aimed at curbing gun violence: the most of any state in 2013, and a record for California. Connecticut has called its own 2013 gun control legislation “the toughest in the United States”. The Georgia bill was criticised by the state’s police and restaurant groups, as well as the federal Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for airport security.
Some polls suggested a majority of Georgia citizens also opposed it. But, Mr Henry argued, “You can make a poll say whatever you want it to say,” adding that Georgia Carry’s own poll found that more than 60 per cent of Georgians were in favour of the legislation.
Many members of the House met the results of Thursday’s vote with a standing ovation. The “Guns Everywhere” bill was passed in the dying hours of Georgia’s legislative session, though another bill brought to the floor failed to make it through.
That bill was a measure to legalise the use of medical marijuana extracts to treat children suffering from severe seizures. Republican state senator Fran Millar told Reuters: “We did nothing for kids, but we passed a gun bill.”