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Savannah mayor champions new firearms storage law

Today, Johnson is Savannah’s mayor, and he wants his constituents to follow his dad’s example and lock up their firearms. Last week, Johnson and the City Council made Savannah the first city in the state to outlaw the leaving of guns in unlocked cars. The revisions to the local gun laws also require residents to report the theft of firearms from vehicles to the Savannah Police Department.

The law is in response to an epidemic of gun thefts from vehicles in recent years. Last year, 203 of the 244 guns reported stolen from cars were unsecured. Through the first three months of this year, 56 of 69 thefts were from unlocked vehicles.

Johnson called stealing guns from cars a “crime of opportunity,” citing hours of video surveillance footage showing would-be thieves checking door handles of parked cars to see whether they are locked.

“They’re not trying to break into cars — that’s too hard. If the door is locked, they keep on going,” Johnson said. “If we can make it a little harder, I think we can drive that number down.”

While violent crime is down sharply in Savannah this year — off 24% from 2023 and 37% from 2022 — stolen guns are frequently used in commission of homicides, robberies and assaults, according to officials. Statistics were not immediately available.

Enforcement of the newly passed ordinance won’t begin until July to allow for a 90-day public awareness campaign. Penalties include up to a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail.

Johnson said he had no concerns that the law would dissuade gun owners who had weapons stolen from their vehicles from reporting those thefts — or prompt them to lie about whether the car was locked.

Thieves in Savannah are stealing pistols and other firearms left in unlocked vehicles. (Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

A crusade on guns

Curbing gun violence has long been a priority for Johnson. He was a Chatham County police officer early in his professional career at a time when gang wars plagued the area. The remnants of the infamous Ricky Jivens gang, named for its imprisoned leader and known for requiring would-be members to kill a local community member to gain entry, was still operating.

Johnson won elected office in 2004 as a district alderman, and gun issues have always been a part of his platform. After a spike in Savannah’s homicide rate in the mid-2010s — a crime spree that contributed to the defeat of Johnson’s mentor, Edna Jackson, in a 2015 mayoral reelection bid — Johnson organized a buyback program to get handguns off the streets of Savannah’s neighborhoods.

The program offered gift cards and cash to those who turned in guns, and Johnson handed over the weapons to Chatham County to be destroyed. But under state law, firearms turned into law enforcement cannot be destroyed but must be resold if the registered owners cannot be found.

Johnson responded by lobbying the General Assembly to change the law, an initiative that remains part of the Savannah city government’s annual legislative agenda. Johnson touted his gun stance in both his successful runs for mayor. He first won office in 2019 and was reelected last November.

He’s found new allies on the Savannah City Council in recent years. Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan, who represents the city’s east side neighborhoods, is the city’s preeminent anti-gun violence champion. Her son, Lawrence Bryan IV, was killed in a 2015 shooting at age 23.

Another alderman, Detrick Leggett, is a leader in the Bullhorn Crew, a group of community activists focused on gun violence; while two other council members, Alicia Blakely and Bernetta Lanier, have long voiced support for tighter gun laws. Two more aldermen, Kurtis Purtee and Nick Palumbo, have law enforcement backgrounds, and Wilder-Bryan is a former sheriff’s deputy.

People gather in Piedmont Park before a rally organized by Georgia Moms Demand Action on Saturday, May 13, 2023. The rally was part of a national series of protests the day before Mother’s Day to highlight the mounting toll of gun violence.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

The council approved the ordinance change by unanimous vote.

“They were much more likely to be at a crime scene, or engage with the victims of crime than to not,” said Johnson of his fellow council members. “They’ve really seen the effects of gun violence more firsthand.

Enforcement issues and legal challenges

Enforcement of the newly passed ordinance is months away, yet already residents and special-interest groups alike have voiced questions about the legality of the law as well as the enforcement process.

The president of the Savannah Racial Justice Network, Alan Mainor, has criticized the change, saying it criminalizes residents for owning guns, and the leader of the statewide gun rights group Georgia Carry labeled it an “illegal ordinance.”

Savannah’s law is unique in Georgia but not nationally, with similar gun storage laws in effect in 10 states.

As for enforcement, a city government spokesman declined a request for interviews with Savannah Police Department officials, instead issuing a statement detailing the penalties and court process.

Johnson expects legal challenges to the revised law and is ready to defend it. He said local governments cannot be afraid to pass laws meant to protect the public, pointing to Savannah’s mask mandate enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The law was contrary to a state statute that forbid mask requirements.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was the first in Georgia to institute a mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I would love to see someone tell a judge in this community that they should have the right to leave their gun unsecured where it can be stolen,” Johnson said. “In the time it takes for someone to file a complaint, they could secure their gun.”

The gun storage law may not be the last firearms initiative Johnson champions in Savannah. He maintains that he’s a proponent of the Second Amendment and “isn’t coming for your guns.” But with more than three years left on what will be his last term as a city elected official — he’s term-limited as mayor and says he won’t run for an alderman post — he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to other possible changes.

“We support the Second Amendment, but we also support second-graders. We support people’s right to carry a gun, but I support my right not to get shot,” he said. “We will follow the data and will follow the law.”

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