COLUMBUS, Ga. — Toyia Tucker is used to working around guns. For three years, she was stationed at an Air Force base in Alaska, where she and other residents armed themselves to scare away moose and bears.
Guns are everywhere, she said. “Even my nearly 80-year-old grandmother now feels like she needs a weapon to feel safe,” said Tucker, 44. “I feel like we have gone back to the era of Butch Cassidy, and I am not sure how we get back to a regular normal.”
Tucker’s concerns, echoed by many here, reflect a dangerous cycle of gun violence in this racially diverse city. As violent crime jumps in the state, residents are arming themselves at record levels, which is leading to more crime and spurring new efforts by state GOP lawmakers to loosen permitting requirements for carrying concealed weapons.
It’s a trend that has echoed across the country, as gun violence continues to rattle communities. In recent days, a gunman shot and killed two dentists inside their clinic in Tyler, Tex. A rider aboard a city bus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shot four people, two of them fatally. A dispute in a nightlife district in Norfolk, left three people injured and two dead. A shooting at a car show in rural Arkansas left one person dead and more than two dozen wounded.
Firearm purchases have soared since the beginning of the pandemic, particularly among first-time gun buyers. And state legislatures across the country are moving to make it easier to carry a gun in public.
In recent weeks, Republican governors in Alabama and Ohio have signed laws that nix permits for concealed weapons; 21 other states have similar measures in place. At the urging of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), similar measures have passed the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives; the governor is expected to sign the final version of the legislation in the coming days.
The legislation, a setback for gun-control advocates in a state that has been trending left, has opened up sharp cultural divisions here in Georgia.
“Why now? Why is this coming up now?” asked Roy W. Minter Jr., the police chief in Savannah, Ga., who noted his city had more than 100 guns stolen out of unlocked vehicles last year. “One of the concerns I have [with the legislation] is more people leaving their guns in cars, people leaving their guns in other places, because now there is more freedom to have that gun with them.”
‘I’ve never seen it like this before’
Columbus, a river city of 200,000 in southwestern Georgia, offers a window into the nation’s pandemic-era gun culture, and why some local officials are worried about the solutions proposed by state lawmakers.
Even as Georgia’s second-most populated city has rebranded itself from a military town to a destination for white-water rafting, Columbus has been swept up in a cycle of fear.
As homicides surged during the coronavirus pandemic, Columbus residents purchased firearms. Those weapons are now increasingly being stolen from vehicles and homes, leading to more violence and more residents arming themselves.
“Over the last three or four years, you had so many ingredients that went into a society that tends to be a little bit more polarized … a little less empathetic and a little bit more anxious,” said Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson, who added, “I think it’s going to be a while for the swelling to go down.”
Last year, there were 70 homicides in this city, the highest tally anyone can remember. Sixty-three of those deaths were classified as murders, and the bulk of those killings were related to domestic disputes or shootings involving two people who knew each other.
Homicides have dipped so far this year compared with 2021, but Columbus residents remain rattled by a spate of killings stemming from robberies, stray bullets or gunfights on city streets.
In recent months, a 71-year-old grandmother died after she was hit by a stray bullet while driving her vehicle in a Columbus neighborhood. The owner of a local gas station was killed in middle of the day in the parking lot of a bank, even though the bank is surrounded on two sides by a Columbus police department precinct.
And in August, a 12-year-old, Cortez Richardson, was shot and killed in the back seat of an SUV.
Tiffany Richardson, 31, said she had taken Cortez and her five other children to a local steakhouse after she received her tax refund, fulfilling a long-standing promise to her children.
While Richardson was driving her family home around 10 p.m., gunfire erupted between individuals in two nearby vehicles.
“We didn’t notice my son got hit until my second son turned on the light and that is when we saw blood on him,” Richardson said. “It all happened so fast — the bullet went through the back of the truck and struck my son on the left side of his back.”
Even police are not immune. Last fall, one Muscogee County deputy was chased and shot in the forehead while driving to work in a Columbus suburb. Last month, three teenagers allegedly rolled down the windows of their vehicle and fired at another deputy during a police pursuit, striking him in his shoulder.
Officials attribute the rise in crime to several factors. Greg Countryman, the county’s sheriff, said Columbus has seen a rapid increase in the number of criminal gangs, which he blames for much of the random gun violence.
“There are motorcycle gangs. You have Haitian gangs. You have Hispanic gangs. Asian gangs. The Bloods and the Crips,” Countryman said. “I’ve been in law enforcement for 31 years and I’ve never seen it like this before.”
Henderson, the Columbus mayor, said the stress of the pandemic, the nation’s divisive political battles and younger residents’ embrace of “video game culture” have also coalesced to drive more residents to decide they “can’t handle a conflict without firing a weapon.”
“When you look at the situation over the last couple of years, there is no playbook for that,” added Columbus Police Chief Freddie Blackmon, who has been in law enforcement for 36 years. “The first step to resolve differences should not be to pick up a firearm and shoot someone.”
Although they concede it may take time, Columbus leaders said they hope to curtail the violence by cracking down on gangs, expanding support for low-income families, and steering more resources into mental health programs.
But here in the heart of the Bible Belt, even the county sheriff is starting to wonder whether some of the nation’s troubles with guns eclipse the ability of law enforcement to effectively handle them without spiritual intervention.
“It was written [in the Bible] in the end of times, there would be an increase in lawlessness,” said Countryman, who was elected in 2020 as the county’s first Black sheriff. “We have to be prayerful that we can trust God to get us out of it.”
‘This is the new norm’
In interviews, many Columbus residents said the rise in violent crime, along with skepticism that law enforcement officials can keep them safe, motivated them to get a gun. Officials said rumors of lawlessness during the pandemic, along with fear sparked by the protests that began after George Floyd’s killing, have also played a role.
Mirroring nationwide trends, the county that includes Columbus saw 5,410 applications for concealed weapons permits last year, compared with 3,264 applications in 2019, according to the Muscogee County Probate Court. The court processed nearly three times more concealed weapons permits last year than it did 15 years ago.
“I have a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old, and no way am I going to be stopped in the middle of the highway by someone and not have a way to defend myself,” John Murray, a 28-year-old soldier at nearby Fort Benning U.S. Army base, said recently as he was purchasing a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at a local gun store.
David Warrick, the manager of Alpine Pawn and Sporting Goods gun store in Columbus, said business has increased by at least 30 percent over the past two years. The increase in business is being driven by Black women, Warrick said.
“It’s a lot of older church ladies,” Warrick said. “And the majority of people I deal with say they feel victimized. They have called police, and the police were not there to help, or they know someone who has been victimized and they just don’t want it to happen them.”
As Warrick spoke, 32-year-old Starlett Harris walked into the store looking to purchase a pistol.
Harris, who is Black and a single mother, said she wants to carry a concealed weapon, because the “youth do not respect older people.” Harris, who works as a hairstylist, said one of her friends was recently robbed at a stoplight while driving in Columbus with her daughter.
“Today, the young are wicked,” said Harris, who drives home each night with her cash tips. “They don’t care how old you are. They don’t care if you are a woman.”
Tucker, the Columbus councilwoman, said similar concerns drove her Black mother and grandmother to purchase firearms.
Tucker said most of her extended family own weapons, which she said would have been unthinkable during her childhood in a historically Black, middle-class Columbus neighborhood. “My great-great-grandfather had some type of gun from the war on the wall, but that is the only time I even saw any type of weapon,” she said.
Recently, Tucker said, a customer at her favorite nail salon talked about having a gun in her purse while getting her nails polished.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. In the nail salon?’ ” Tucker said. “But that is becoming the norm, where more and more people are carrying. … This is the new norm, and I would never imagine that we would be in the wild, wild West in 2022.”
Sonny Patel, a cashier at a local Chevron gas station, doubts that gun sales will subside in Columbus anytime soon. Patel’s boss, Amit Patel, was the man killed in December in front of a local bank.
“I moved to this town back in 2003 from New Jersey because it was peaceful,” said Sonny Patel, who is Indian American. “Now, I feel like I made a big mistake.”
Although he noted gun ownership is not common under his Hindu faith, he said he and many other local Indian Americans are now looking to purchase firearms.
“Everyone is trying to get something,” said Sonny Patel, 45. “If I have a gun, someone is maybe going to think twice before they shoot at me, because maybe I will shoot back.”
Richardson, who is studying health services management at a local college, said she purchased a pistol about three weeks after her son was killed. She prefers to leave her firearm at home, but said she believes it offers her protection if she can’t keep her family indoors after 8 p.m. — an informal curfew she adopted after Cortez’s death.
“Because of what happened to my son, and with all of this other stuff going on, you have to prepare yourself,” Richardson said. “I would not say I don’t trust the police, but you got young and dumb teenagers out there, and you never know because they can just be driving and shooting in the air.”
The surge in gun ownership in Georgia is also leading to more stolen weapons. Law enforcement officials said those guns are then either being used in local crimes or sold on the black market in Northern states, where gun laws tend to be stricter.
Between January and October of last year, Columbus police investigated at least 460 stolen firearms, many of which appear to have been legally obtained guns that were taken from vehicles. City leaders say organized gangs have been searching vehicles in neighborhoods and shopping centers because they know so many Columbus residents now travel with firearms.
The problem is even more stark in Atlanta, the state’s most populated city. According to Atlanta police, 2,008 guns were stolen from vehicles in the city last year, while another 148 vehicles were stolen while a weapon was inside them.
‘Fear on so many levels’
When asked about the rise in gun ownership, officials and experts point to a confluence of events over the past three years.
There are the stresses associated with the pandemic, which included widespread rumors across the South about an impending breakdown of public order. The anxiety here only intensified when riots erupted in Atlanta in the weeks following the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.
Additionally, high-profile violent incidents startled Georgians. Last March, a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women, at three different spas in the Atlanta region.
A few months later, a Black gunman allegedly used a stolen firearm to shoot five people over the two days in the Columbus metropolitan region. When a suspect was arrested, he told police he had been targeting White males, according to court records and media reports.
More recently, a documentary called “Raw Streets of South Georgia” has been viewed more than 800,000 times on YouTube. The documentary shows heavily armed gang members walking the streets of Columbus.
Reggie Lewis, a former Columbus police officer who now runs a city crime-prevention initiative, said the nation’s divisive political debate is also driving “fear on so many levels,” including the trend of more Black women arming themselves.
“You heard the word ‘racism’ so many times. You see pictures of the [U.S.] Capitol storming. You see pictures of the riots,” Lewis said. “We are seeing so much hatred and everything else, it’s a factor in people saying, ‘I can’t count on someone else being at the house, or being my protector.’ ”
‘This is not the world I grew up in’
But while past periods of gun violence have generated calls for more restrictions on firearms, conservatives pushing for looser gun laws now appear to have the momentum in Georgia and elsewhere.
Georgia lawmakers recently passed a bill that would do away with permit requirements for gun owners. Residents who want to carry concealed weapons would still be subjected to a federal background check when they purchase their weapons from a licensed gun dealer, but they no longer would be required to apply for a permit from their county probate court office.
Kevin D. Holder, executive director of the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia, said under current law, between 5,000 and 7,000 applicants are denied a concealed-weapons permit each year because they have a felony conviction or other disqualifying blemish on their record.
During the debate in the state legislature, Democratic lawmakers warned their GOP colleagues that Democrats have been making steady gains in suburban Atlanta, and they credit residents’ uneasiness with lax gun-control measures for some of their success. A poll conducted in January by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found that nearly 70 percent of Georgia voters opposed Kemp’s proposal.
“We hold formerly Republican districts where people with certain demographics believe they want representatives who don’t buy into this drift right BS,” Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Democrat who represents the northern suburbs of Atlanta, said during the House debate.
But Republican lawmakers have been mostly united in advancing the proposal, often citing the spike in violent crime and domestic unrest to support their position.
State Rep. J. Collins, a Republican who chairs the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, told the House that for years he resisted eliminating the permitting requirement but changed his mind after seeing the riots in Atlanta in 2020.
“Let’s talk about the people who reached out to legislators and said, ‘You know, I never had a reason to carry a gun but now that I want to, and my magistrate for my probate court is shut down [due to covid], and they are burning down these neighborhoods around us, and we are seeing violent crime,’ ” Collins said.
If the “constitutional carry” legislation is signed into law, Countryman said law enforcement officials would be in “uncharted waters,” making it more difficult for them to determine whether an armed individual is legally carrying their weapons.
Yet some Columbus-area residents wonder whether gun violence is already past the point where either police or state legislators can make much of a difference.
Wayne Murray, 52, said he cannot legally own a firearm because he received a felony conviction for drug offenses in the early 1990s. But, Murray said, his wife owns a shotgun and a pistol, and she has recently been practicing at the gun range because she fears for her family’s safety.
“A lot of people are getting it for show,” said Murray, who is Black and said he is afraid of street crime and the dangers posed by domestic white supremacist groups. “Would you shoot someone who you thought had a gun?
“It’s sad we got to go back to the wild, wild West days,” Murray added. “But it seemed to work back then. Why can’t it work now?”
But Tucker, the city councilwoman, still holds out hope Georgia Republicans will reconsider their proposal.
“This is not the world I grew up in,” Tucker said. “It’s far more dangerous, so why increase the danger even more?”
Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.