Originally created 01/29/97

Legislator pushes instant firearm background checks



ATLANTA - Gun-control advocates might finally be getting what they want in Georgia: instant background checks on all firearms, including rifles and shotguns.

House Public Safety Chairman Ralph Twiggs, D-Hiawassee, is asking lawmakers to expand background checks to include the purchase of all guns.

Mr. Twiggs, generally known as a legislative conservative, says the federal government demands states make the change by 1998, anyway.

"I'm doing this because I have to," Mr. Twiggs told Morris News Service.

Whatever the reasoning, lawmakers who want restrictions on gun buyers support expanding the instant background checks.

"That's an advance. That's what we've been after all along," said Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, who has been advocating gun control bills in the General Assembly since the mid-1970s.

"That's wonderful. Thank God for Congress," added Sen. Ralph David Abernathy, D-Atlanta.

The National Rifle Association, which has controlled the gun debate in the General Assembly for years, opposes most parts of the bill, said spokesman Chip Walker.

Mr. Walker said the only part of Mr. Twiggs' bill supported by the NRA is a change that cuts the number of hours the Georgia Bureau of Investigation operates its background check hotline.

Less than two years ago, the NRA helped craft Georgia's law eliminating local waiting periods and setting up a statewide instant background check for handgun buyers.

The GBI opened the hotline Jan. 1, 1996. A gun dealer calls the GBI to check whether a customer had been convicted of a felony or been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. The GBI tells the dealer whether the customer is eligible to buy a weapon.

However, if a dealer calls when the GBI computers aren't working, or doesn't get a response by the end of the shop's business day, the sale can be made without the background check.

Having an instant check exempts Georgia from the federal Brady Bill, which requires a five-day waiting period for gun buyers.

Mr. Walker said 15 states have background check laws similar to Georgia's.

During the system's first year of operation, the GBI did 103,000 background checks, according to agency officials.

Of that total, 8,463 were not approved either because the prospective purchasers were felons, had pending criminal cases against them or had past mental problems.

Under federal law, states with background checks have to include all firearms by 1998, Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Twiggs' bill also raises the fee that can be charged for the background checks from $5 to $7, and limits the hours of hotline operation on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closes the office on Christmas.

The background check service remains available 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Mr. Twiggs said the GBI receives almost no requests for checks between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Sundays, and got no calls on Christmas.

"We're trying to save a dollar and still service the people," he said.

However, Mr. Scott is worried changing the hours will give gun buyers a chance to avoid the check.

"That opens up a window for people with criminal records to say, `all we've got to do is wait until Sunday or a holiday to get our guns,"' he said.