By Henri Hollis, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga (CNT)
During months of protests across the country, images of activists openly carrying firearms at politically charged events have become common.
Recently and close to home, armed white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed in Stone Mountain Village on Aug. 15. During protests following the death of Rayshard Brooks, armed demonstrators organized around the site in Atlanta where Brooks was shot, leading to tensions with police and the surrounding community that lasted weeks.
During the first presidential debate, President Donald Trump encouraged supporters to “watch very carefully” at the polls, continuing his insistence that the election could suffer from fraud despite the fact that there is next to no evidence of widespread fraud in federal elections.
With the president’s entreaties and recent armed face-offs as reference points, experts say voters should be prepared to see activists carrying weapons near polling places during voting hours — the operative word being “near.”
Georgia is an open carry state, which means licensed individuals can carry guns in most public places. Often, they do it as a matter of personal security.
However, firearms are banned within 150 feet of polling places, according to state law. Guns are also banned from locations that commonly serve as polling places, such as schools and houses of worship. Private businesses have the authority to ban guns on their premises, too.
Even with a general ban on guns at polling places, Georgia voters may see armed people in the area of their polling sites. Here’s what you should know:
Can people carry guns into polling places?
No. Guns are banned within 150 feet of all polling places. Schools are often voting sites, and guns are banned by federal law within 1,000 feet of school property.
Technically, there is an exception if a licensed weapons carrier reports a gun to a peace officer, such as a police officer or sheriff’s deputy providing security at the voting site. The voter would be required to turn over a gun to the officer while voting and retrieve it afterward.
For people licensed to carry guns in Georgia, the most practical advice is to leave your gun locked and unloaded inside your car while you vote, said Marietta-based attorney Matt Kilgo, who wrote about guns at polling places for the U.S. Law Shield legal defense program.
How close to me can someone carry a gun while I am voting?
In practice, 150 feet may not feel like a large distance. Lines at many polling places are likely to stretch well beyond that, thanks to high expected turnout and social-distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Voters could easily spend time standing in lines a relatively far distance from where they will actually vote, as was the case in June when many voters waited hours to cast primary ballots.
However, there are other considerations for whether gun possession near voting sites is legal. If a polling place is a school, carrying a gun is illegal within 1,000 feet of school property, which makes for a larger buffer. Georgia law also prohibits campaigning or soliciting votes near polling places, including within 25 feet of someone standing in line.
This law would apply if an activist with a gun approaches someone outside the 150-foot polling place zone and says or demonstrates anything related to current political campaigns. In this case, a voter could request help from security officers or poll workers at the polling place.
Both federal and state laws prohibit voter intimidation, according to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan legal and policy institute. Voters can also request assistance from authorities at their polling place, call 911 or call the Election Protection hotline run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Are the armed people near my polling place a militia?
A militia can only be raised by a government request or order. Since neither the state nor the federal government has requested a militia to be present at polling places, an organized group of armed people would be considered an unauthorized private militia.
Unauthorized private militias are illegal in all 50 states, including Georgia. According to state law, it is a misdemeanor for a group of people to organize themselves as a military unit or demonstrate in public with firearms. Private paramilitary organizations are not protected by the Second Amendment, as decided by a Supreme Court ruling in 1886 that was upheld in 2008.
The law against unauthorized militias has seldom been litigated in court and is rarely, if ever, enforced in Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously reported. With this in mind, it is unrealistic for voters to expect peace officers to arrest unauthorized militia members on the spot. However, authorities should enforce the distance guidelines that provide a buffer between voters and people carrying guns.
What’s the difference between a militia and people legally carrying guns in Georgia?
This is a gray area and, in practice, will be determined in the moment by peace officers and other authorities. According to the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, an unauthorized private militia or paramilitary group is likely to show signs of organization, such as a similar style of dress, wearing insignias, carrying flags, coordinating their actions or following a leader. They might “patrol” an area or engage in military-style maneuvers.
It is illegal for private citizens, whether they have guns or not, to stop or question people while they are attempting to vote. If this happens, call 911 or request security from the polling place to intervene.