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ELLIJAY, Ga. — It's legal for licensed gun owners in Georgia to pack heat in bars, schools, churches and some government buildings.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, on Wednesday signed the state's "Safe Carry Protection Act," which critics dubbed the "guns everywhere bill," in north Georgia, on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest and Cohutta Wilderness area.

"Our state has some of the best protections for gun owners in the United States. And today we strengthen those rights protected by our nation's most revered founding document," Deal said in signing the bill.

The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows licensed gun owners in Georgia and visitors from 28 other states to bring a gun into a bar without restrictions and carry a firearm into some government buildings that don't have security measures. It also allows school districts to decide whether they want some employees to carry a firearm and religious leaders to decide whether to allow licensed gun owners to tote to their church, synagogue or mosque.

Since Jan. 1, 6 states have eased gun laws, 6 states have strengthened them and 4 states have both eased and strengthened firearm laws, according to Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Deal signed the bill here because state House Speaker David Ralston, who championed the measure in the state House, represents the area, according to Deal's office.

The new law provoked intense debate. Both supporters and opponents flocked to the state. The National Rifle Association called it "the most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent history." The gun rights group GeorgiaCarry.org believes the bill will "restore our right to carry and be allowed to protect ourselves anywhere we go," according to executive director Jerry Henry.

Opponents include Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group co-founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, which called it the nation's most extreme gun bill and said it "moves Georgia out of the mainstream." Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America also lobbied against the bill. It's "a very, very dangerous kill bill," said their national spokeswoman, Lucia McBath, whose 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was killed in November 2012 in Jacksonville, Fla., in a dispute over loud music.

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The bill also drew some in-state opposition. People will be able to carry firearms in government buildings that don't have metal detectors, such as city halls, libraries, recreational centers, city office buildings and fire stations. The Georgia Municipal Association, which represents the state's 538 cities, asked Deal to veto it. "Local elected officials are responsible for securing and maintaining public safety, and insurance coverage, in buildings owned and operated by the city. Therefore, they should have the authority to make a decision about whether to allow weapons in such buildings," GMA said in a letter to Deal.

The new law removes a restriction that prevented those convicted of certain misdemeanors from getting a gun permit. And in a provision that has some law enforcement officials concerned, police will not be able to detain a person "for the sole purpose of investigating whether such a person has a weapons carry license."

As Deal signed the bill in Ellijay, a community of 1,600 about 65 miles north of Atlanta, the Georgia Gun Sense Coalition had an event in downtown Atlanta that included a moment of silence for all gun victims. In 2011, the most recent available, gunfire killed 1,175 people in Georgia, including 443 who were murdered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The gun bill had failed in three previous legislative sessions but passed late on the night of March 20, the session's final day this year.

A year ago this month, a man in Suwanee, Ga., faked a heart attack and took five Gwinnett County firefighters hostage at gunpoint in his house, knowing that the emergency responders would not be armed. Though the incident ended well for the firefighters — a SWAT team rescued them four hours later but killed the gunman — some Georgia legislators believe that this incident provided the impetus for the legislation to pass.

Doug Richards also reports for WXIA-TV, Atlanta, and reported from Ellijay. Contributing: Jon Shirek, WXIA-TV, Atlanta.

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