ATLANTA - As Republicans nationwide gear up to attack Democrats with tough-on-crime platforms this fall, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams is making guns a central focus of her race for governor, seeking to turn crime into a liability for incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection bid.
Abrams made tightening Georgia’s gun laws a big part of a public safety plan she released Thursday, proposing to reverse multiple laws that Georgia Republicans have enacted since 2014 loosening restrictions on who can carry a gun and where.
The Democrat is also trying to exploit divides on how government should fight crime, arguing Kemp and Republicans have reverted to a failed lock-’em-up approach, abandoning a previous bipartisan push to focus on less punitive approaches.
Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, one of Kemp’s closest allies, said it is "absolutely false" that Republicans have abandoned reform efforts, saying the GOP pushed through a mental health bill this year, supports diverting nonviolent offenders and wants to do more on drug addiction.
But he said Democrats are wrong to reject a Kemp strategy that has focused on cracking down on gangs, giving bonuses to police officers and creating a special state unit that focuses on crime and street racing in urban areas.
Carr said Democrats "fundamentally are more interested in protecting violent criminals than they are vulnerable communities."
Strengthening gun restrictions is an issue that resonates with Democratic voters and could sway suburban white women and other swing voters at a time when the country is still in shock from mass shootings at an upstate New York supermarket and Texas school. Those and other shootings have added fresh urgency to a seemingly stalemated national debate over guns, with some congressional Republicans signaling a willingness for at least small compromises.
Democrats are betting that voters are "at a breaking point," as Georgia Democratic state Rep. Shea Roberts puts it, over Republicans’ decisions to expand access to guns.
In 2014, Georgia lawmakers decreed people could carry guns into additional places, including bars, churches and even up to the security checkpoint at the airport. In 2017, they added college campuses to the list. And Kemp this year pushed through a law that abolished the requirement for people to have permits to carry concealed weapons in public. That fulfilled a pledge Kemp had made when he ran for governor in 2018 with provocative ads, including one where he pointed a gun at an actor playing a suitor to one of Kemp’s daughters.
Roberts unseated a Republican lawmaker in an affluent Atlanta district in 2020, saying she was motivated to run after her daughter described an active shooter drill at school two weeks before the 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
"Things have only gotten worse since then," Roberts said.
Abrams wants universal background checks for private gun sales, red flag legislation to let guns be taken away from those who pose a danger to themselves and others, and to block someone who has had a gun removed under a protective order from buying another one.
Polling showed even many Republican-leaning voters felt Kemp and GOP state lawmakers went too far in making it legal to carry concealed guns without a permit, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.
"It was not a tremendously popular idea even among Republican voters," Bullock said. "Arguably the legislature was listening only to the hardest of hardcore Republicans, and not where the average Republicans were on some of those issues."
But even if Abrams wins, she’s likely to face Republican majorities resistant to her proposals in Georgia’s legislature. Those majorities are backed by vocal groups opposed to any compromise.
"The people who really believe in their rights are going to believe in their rights, regardless," said Jerry Henry, executive director of the Georgia gun rights group GA2A.
Henry said he doubts Republicans would be willing to tighten Georgia’s laws. Such proposals would be viable only if Abrams "drags a whole bunch of Democrats into the General Assembly with her," Henry said. "And I’m not even sure all the Democrats will go along with her."
Carr says Abrams and his opponent for attorney general, Democrat Jen Jordan, have misread how Georgians feel about guns and protecting themselves from crime.
"They are out of touch with where Georgians are," Carr said. "It is a fundamental human need to be safe and secure."
Abrams wants to reconstitute a criminal justice reform council that authored multiple reforms when Republican Nathan Deal was governor. Sara Totonchi, policy director for the Abrams campaign, said Abrams would direct the group to "take a hard look at violent crime, why it happens and what we can do to address it at the source."
Abrams proposes intervening in schools and with families to prevent violence and expanding job training and opportunities. She wants to convert some low-level traffic and drug crimes into civil offenses. And she wants a "clean slate" law that would automatically clear criminal records if someone doesn’t reoffend in a set period of time.
Republican National Committee spokesperson Garrison Douglas derided the clean slate proposal as "felony-b-gone," saying it was further proof that Abrams is soft on crime. Republicans have already been attacking Abrams for being a board member of the Seattle-based Marguerite Casey Foundation, saying the group is in favor of defunding or abolishing the police.
Kemp, in turn, is under Democratic attack for taking $50,000 in campaign contributions from Daniel Defense, the Georgia-based company that made the rifle used in the Uvalde, Texas, school attack.
Abrams’ crime plan is the third in a series of aggressive moves aimed at turning the tables on issues Kemp has championed. After Kemp extended a temporary gas tax holiday into July, Abrams called on Kemp to extend it for the rest of the year. Kemp delivered on a signature $5,000 pay raise for teachers; Abrams responded by calling for an additional $11,000 average raise for teachers.
The question, Bullock said, is whether guns and other social issues will motivate voters in a campaign where Republicans will likely focus on the economy, with Kemp taking credit for economic development projects while the GOP hammers Democrats over inflation.
Because Kemp is now an incumbent in his electoral rematch with Abrams, "she arguably has a more challenging task this time than she did four years ago," Bullock said. "So she’s got to try to neutralize with issues that might overcome the economic message the governor’s going to be pushing."