If you have a license, it’s not against the law to carry a gun. Even if you’re accompanied by a man wearing a sombrero.
BY ERIC JOHNSON
AUGUSTA, GA - In a settlement filed in District Court on Dec. 4, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office admitted violating an Augusta man’s Fourth Amendment rights by seizing and holding his firearm.
The settlement brings closure to a bizarre case that is equal parts highbrow constitutional philosophy and lowbrow absurdity.
According to information contained in the consent order, a Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy was making a routine patrol of the Kroger parking lot on Washington Road when he was waved down by a customer who indicated a man carrying a firearm was inside the store acting in a bizarre and obnoxious manner.
This is where things go from “Perry Mason” to “Pee-Wee Herman.” Quoting from the report: “[the deputy] was informed that this individual was accompanied by another man wearing a sombrero and carrying a guitar.”
Zach Mead, the man with the gun, vehemently denies the allegation.
“It was a banjo,” he insists.
That’s the thing about this case. It’s not normal.
Zach Mead is not, in the strictest sense, normal. He’s military, yes, but he’s also a liberally tattooed free spirit who has friends who wear sombreros and play banjos in checkout aisles.
He also openly carries a Beretta 92 Steel-I in a holster on his hip.
Which is legal, by the way.
Maybe it’s a matter of perception, or maybe it matters whether or not you’re the one wearing the holster, but Mead has a different take on the Kroger incident than the report.
“I can understand why people might think we were kind of strange,” he says, “but it’s not against the law to be different.”
He’s right, after all. It’s not a crime to be different, and if you’re a licensed gun owner, it’s not a crime to openly carry your gun in public, either.
“Simply put, a police officer needs reasonable suspicion of a crime before he can detain someone, and merely possessing a handgun is not reasonable suspicion of a crime,” says Ed Stone, president of the gun rights group georgiacarry.org and co-counsel for Mead. “In this case, the encounter went beyond merely detaining Zachary Mead for having a handgun; the deputy in this case actually seized the handgun and took it with him.”
Because most people, including some gun owners, are unaware that a Georgia firearms license (GFL) grants you the right to openly carry a firearm, a perception exists that the gun laws are ambiguous. Stone disagrees.
“I don’t think it’s ambiguous at all,” he says. “You can carry a firearm openly or concealed in the State of Georgia with a firearms license. That’s very clear, and I think 99 percent of officers are perfectly clear on the subject.”
Though now an attorney specializing in construction law, Stone himself was a police officer for 12 years.
“We are experiencing a small problem with a small minority of officers around the State of Georgia,” he says. “Hopefully, these lawsuits will get the word out and clear that up for whatever officers may remain unclear on that.”
Stone and georgiacarry.org made a name for themselves earlier this year when they took on Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s threat to arrest Georgia firearms license holders for lawfully carrying firearms in non-secure areas of the airport.
“In this case, the most aggravating factor in our eyes was the fact that the gun was confiscated and kept for a long period of time, even when the plaintiff tried to get it back,” Stone says. “And that was after the officer knew that Zachary Mead had a firearms license and after the officer knew that Zachary Mead was a member of the United States military.”
In Georgia, having a military ID gives you the same exceptions as a police officer, so Stone contends seizing Mead’s firearm is no different than seizing a firearm from a police officer.
James Ellison, who handled the case for the sheriff’s office, sees it a little differently. Though he admits the deputy may have overstepped his authority, he thinks it was for good reason.
Ellison maintains the officer thought he smelled alcohol on Mead’s breath. That, combined with reports of his odd behavior and the fact that he was purchasing alcohol, caused him to err on the side of caution and seize the gun.
“I think the officer technically should not have done that, but I don’t think you can be too hard on the officer,” he says. “He’s thinking of the safety of the person carrying the gun and those about town.”
To Mead, Stone and georgiacarry.org, however, this case is a Second Amendment issue wrapped up in a Fourth Amendment wrapper.
The Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right against unreasonable search and seizure.
“If police officers can forcibly detain people any time they see them with a firearm, then the Second Amendment would cease to exist,” Stone says. “How can you bear arms if every police officer who sees you can stop you and detain you?”
By settling out of court, Ellison saves the county the embarrassment of a trial and, potentially, quite a lot of money.
“We agreed to settle it because, technically, we felt the officer made the wrong call,” he says, pointing out that had Mead won even a token judgment from a jury, the county would have had to foot Mead’s attorney fees, which would have been considerable.
Though the settlement awarded Mead $1,000 in damages and over $3,000 in attorney fees, Mead’s frustration with the way the situation was handled remains high, and he disputes the allegations that he’d been drinking.
“That part about me drinking was totally untrue,” he says. “He [the deputy] made that up after the fact to try to cover his ass. Over the course of the whole thing, he never said anything about me smelling like alcohol, nor did he ask me if I’d been drinking. He never asked me.”