Behind the bar at The Loft of Augusta, the Texas native keeps the shelves lined with liquor and the refrigerator full of beer. He also keeps his personal weapons at the establishment at 927 Broad St. Only he and his employees – most of whom are licensed and trained to handle a gun – know their location.
Estrada said he has no problem supporting local businesses that don’t permit firearms, but he does believe in his Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
He also wants the opportunity to protect himself, his staffers and customers if push comes to shove, he said. In July 2012, when six people were injured during a downtown shooting on First Friday just across the street from The Loft, Estrada said, 60 people ran into his bar because they knew he had guns there.
So, on April 23, when Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that will allow concealed-carry permit holders to take guns into bars, Estrada was conflicted.
“I’ve got mixed feelings because I carry,” he said. “I can’t say I’m the happiest about it, but I can’t be a hypocrite.”
House Bill 60, called the Safe Carry Protection Act, but nicknamed the “guns everywhere bill” by critics, gives licensed carriers in Georgia more freedom as to where they can take their guns.
Starting July 1, bars will be among the places that concealed-carry permit holders can take their guns without restriction, unless the property owner bans firearms from the premises. Before, guns were legally permitted in bars only if an owner gave the green light.
When the law is activated in two weeks, permit holders also will be allowed to take firearms inside some churches, schools and government buildings, depending on the circumstance.
Estrada said he won’t jump the gun by posting any signs that prohibit weapons inside The Loft, though he toyed with the idea in the beginning. He fears that placing a notice in his bar could draw more attention to the issue and be counterproductive. There’s nothing stopping people from leaving his bar and returning with a gun they’ve retrieved from their car, he said.
Instead, for safety, Estrada will continue bringing in a sheriff’s deputy on weekends and other security personnel during the rest of the week. Only if there’s an incident will Estrada change his policy, he said.
“I’m not going to try to stir it up,” the bar owner said. “I’m not going to put signs up. I’m not going to go crazy. I’ve got deputies at the door. They know the law, and I’m going to let them do their job and we’re going to continue to do ours. Business as usual.”
Whether other downtown bar and restaurant owners will follow in Estrada’s footsteps on the concealed weapons issue is not clear.
“I think the current law makes more sense, but ultimately if someone wants to bring a gun in they’re going to regardless of the law,” said Matt Flynn, the owner of Still Water Tap Room at 974 Broad St. “We currently allow them, but honestly, I’ve only had one person ever ask for permission.”
Flynn said he’s not had an issue involving guns since opening his bar – a casual spot that features live music – in 2003. He is, however, leaning toward implementing a new protocol that forbids guns from Still Water.
“We will probably post a “No Weapons” sign just to keep things from becoming the Old West,” Flynn said. “I wouldn’t think it would affect revenue, but I don’t know.”
The owners of Whiskey Bar Kitchen and Metro Pub and Coffeehouse are similarly wary of a scenario inside the neighboring Broad Street businesses that includes firearms. Co-owner Kenny Morrison said that although he doesn’t have an opinion on the gun-control issue, he wants to promote a “family environment” and will put up a sign barring concealed weapons in both locations.
“Just because there are so many people that come through both places, I would just rather not have that one added element where something could go wrong,” Morrison said. He added that the potential danger from mixing alcohol and guns was a key reason behind the decision.
Two blocks down, at Joe’s Underground Cafe on Eighth Street, owner Jeremy LaFontaine doesn’t have a policy regarding guns.
“The people who are going to abide by it aren’t going to be the people who are going to be the problem,” he said. “The people you’re going to have to worry about are not going to go register their weapon or buy a gun-carry permit.”
Legislation was passed in 2008 allowing guns inside Georgia restaurants serving alcohol.
“There’s no difference if you’re going to a restaurant and you have several drinks,” LaFontaine said. “If you shoot for more of a responsible crowd and have people that just want to come and have a good time and enjoy a drink or food or whatever, it is then I feel like you’re not going to have as much of a problem.”
The Georgia Restaurant Association has taken a stance in support of private property owners deciding whether to allow guns.
“If they do not want guns in their establishment, property owners can simply post a sign in their window,” said the association’s executive director, Karen Bremer, in a statement.
Around the country, a growing number of restaurant chains have jumped aboard the anti-gun movement by asking customers to refrain from carrying firearms while dining.
Sonic and Chili’s are among the latest to join the list, which already includes Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Wendy’s.
Is the gun law bad for business, though?
In May, a local steakhouse found out immediately what many of its customers thought of a sign posted that banned guns from the property. T-Bonz’s Facebook page was inundated with angry diners threatening to withhold their business and arguing that the message infringed on their Second Amendment rights.
The notice was removed within 24 hours, said Suzanne Sinisgalli, the assistant general manager, who denied that the backlash from patrons caused management to take it down.
“That wasn’t what we expected,” she said of the negative reaction. “We definitely got the response from it, but that really wasn’t why we took it down. ... We put it up for irresponsible gun owners. Then we thought about it, and we thought, irresponsible gun owners don’t pay attention to signs anyway, so then we just took it down.”
The response after that decision came in the form of praise, with customers thanking T-Bonz for the change of heart and promising to return for a meal.
“We got positive feedback from it for sure,” said Sinisgalli. “But, it was really more our doing.”
David Mustard, an associate economics professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, said he thinks the effect of enforcing a gun-free policy on business will be minor.
“Whatever decision a store owner makes, politically oriented groups on one side could boycott, while politically oriented groups on the other side could encourage their members to patronize the store,” he said. “Similarly, if (a) store owner permits carry, some people may be more likely to attend because they feel safer and others may be less likely to attend because they feel threatened.
‘‘I think few people are on this margin, and there are people who could go offset each other.”
Morrison said he doesn’t think it’s likely that business at Whiskey Bar Kitchen and Metro Pub and Coffeehouse will take a hit.
“If you want to come in to have a hamburger here and a shot of whiskey, then I think that they won’t have a problem with not bringing their weapons in,” he said. “Just like when we did the nonsmoking thing over at Metro, we did get some backlash from people that were used to the place being a smoking establishment, but once that initial wave subsided, everybody’s fine again. I think it’s kind of along the same lines.”