The missing ingredient in the state law, say Reps. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) and Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), appears to be common sense.
“The public expects the same good common sense they use every day of their lives to apply to the laws of our state, and we as legislators seek nothing less,” Setzler said. “We’ll inspect the current state of the law, but our school leaders don’t like it, our law enforcement doesn’t like it, and we’re finding out the citizens who understand the current state of the law certainly don’t like it.”
After the Marietta Daily Journal reported on the cases of Andrew Williams, 18, of Acworth and Cody Chitwood, 17, of Marietta, the newspaper’s comment boards lit up with criticism over how one particular weapons law is written and enforced in Cobb County schools.
Williams, a senior at Allatoona High School, became the subject of a warrantless search after a fellow student told a campus police officer that he or she saw smoke rising from Williams’ car in the student parking lot and it smelled like marijuana. An assistant principal searched the car and did not find any marijuana but did find a pocket knife in the center console, enough to get Williams suspended for 10 days and possibly expelled, while facing felony criminal charges.
Chitwood, a senior at Lassiter High in northeast Cobb, was arrested and charged with violating the same law after a K-9 dog targeted his car during a random police sweep of the student parking lot Sept. 17. When police searched his car they didn’t find any drugs but they did find several fishing knives in a tackle box left in his trunk from a fishing trip several days earlier. He also had a butterfly knife in the side pocket of the driver’s side door.
Both teens were charged with “carrying weapons within a school safety zone,” a felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. This law has been on the books in Georgia since 1981 and has been updated numerous times in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The problem with the law, in Setzler’s opinion, is, like all zero-tolerance laws, it does not require a person to have any criminal intent to be in violation.
While both teens’ parents have hired lawyers to defend them against the potentially life-destroying felony charges, their guilt or innocence under the law may come down to whether the District Attorney’s Office decides to prosecute.
The D.A. does have discretion under such cases, said Golick, who is chairman of the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee in the state House. He, like Setzler, sees a need to go back and re-examine the law and possibly make changes to it when the Georgia General Assembly returns to session in January.
“Yes, you could say I’m among those who want to take a hard look at it between now and January to see what amendments may be needed in order to get common sense back into the equation,” said Golick. “There’s a general policy review, so we have to do the technical due diligence first. After that we’ll decide what, if anything, do we have to do to make sure we don’t have this slow but sure death of common sense.”
The law applies to all knives with a blade measuring two inches or longer, and all firearms.
But it’s not just knives and guns that can land you in jail if found on your person or in your car at a public school in Georgia. A baseball bat or a golf club could do the same.
And it’s not just students who are at risk of being in violation if they forget or lose track of what lies hidden in their car.
Adults who do not have a concealed-carry weapons permit could also be prosecuted under the law.
“The definition of the word ‘weapon’ is very broad,” Setzler said. “A baseball bat, if not possessed for legitimate athletic purposes, qualifies. The bottom line is, regular folk on school property are all kind of exposed over this.”
Setzler said he’s not sure where the discussion about this issue will lead, but he’s going to fight for adding a “criminal intent” element to the law.
“At the end of the day there are common things that adults do — like carry bladed tools or pocket knives in their cars — that need to be allowed and not criminalized,” he said. “We need to have a complete discussion about this. I don’t have all the answers. That needs to come over the next two months. But if there’s no criminal intent it should not be a crime, for students or adults. I’m very committed to discussions between now and Thanksgiving so this can be resolved in the next session.”
Golick also feels the timing is right.
“There’s never a bad time for the application of common sense,” he said.
Have you committed a felony lately?
Georgia’s zero-tolerance weapons law applies to all students and adults on public-school property and college campuses, including driveways and parking lots. There is an exemption for adults holding concealed-carry permits, but that only applies to the carrier's vehicle. A “weapon” is defined as follows:
“…any pistol, revolver, or any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind, or any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, any other knife having a blade of two or more inches, straight-edge razor, razor blade, spring stick, knuckles, whether made from metal, thermoplastic, wood, or other similar material, blackjack, any bat, club, or other bludgeon-type weapon, or any flailing instrument consisting of two or more rigid parts connected in such a manner as to allow them to swing freely, which may be known as a nun chahka, nun chuck, nunchaku, shuriken, or fighting chain, or any disc, of whatever configuration, having at least two points or pointed blades which is designed to be thrown or propelled and which may be known as a throwing star or oriental dart, or any weapon of like kind, and any stun gun or Taser. This paragraph excludes any of these instruments used for classroom work authorized by the teacher.”