GUN FIGHT: Savannah Mayor Van Johnson served with court papers for lawsuit challenging city's gun ordinance

Van Johnson says data led Savannah City Council to unanimously pass the ordinance in April. "We expected lawsuits. Matter of fact, we probably welcome them."

A Georgia man is suing the City of Savannah this month over its enactment of an ordinance that deals with the secure storage of firearms in vehicles and the reporting of stolen weapons in the city. The civil suit was filed in Chatham County Superior Court by Attorney John R. Monroe on behalf of Jesup resident Clarence Belt (the plaintiff) and is one example of the growing opposition to the newly enacted ordinance concerning the reporting of stolen firearms and the storage of legal firearms while in an unoccupied vehicle.

In a five-page complaint to the court, Belt objects to The City of Savannah (defendant) passing and ratifying ordinance “Section 9-1028.” It mandates firearms in vehicles be stored in secure positions (such as a glovebox or trunk) and that all doors on cars must be locked when guns are inside, and the vehicle is unoccupied. It also says that any lost or stolen guns must be reported to the Savannah Police Department within “24 hours of discovery of the loss or theft.”

Monroe spoke with Connect Savannah on May 7 to explain the purpose behind Belt’s lawsuit, and the reason why he believes the ordinance should not be enforced.
click to enlarge GUN FIGHT: Savannah Mayor Van Johnson served with court papers for lawsuit challenging city's gun ordinance
Attorney John Monroe

“From a practical standpoint, one of the reasons is that this makes it virtually impossible for people to keep track of different ordinances in every city and every county,” said Monroe.

“Where can you store a gun in a car in this county versus this one? I think there's 189 counties and something like six or 700 cities in Georgia. If eight or 900 entities in the state have their own rules on how to store guns in cars, then there's no way you can keep track of it.”

Belt’s civil action is summarized in a May 1 complaint letter submitted by Monroe to the judge on the case, Judge Benjamin W. Karpf. In the introduction, Monroe spells out what his client is seeking in the matter.

“This is a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, seeking to have a City of Savannah ordinance regulating storing firearms in vehicles declared void and unenforceable, on the grounds that the ordinance is preempted by state law and the Georgia Constitution, and is ultra vires," the letter states.
The amended complaint filed by attorney John Monroe versus City of Savannah
The “ultra vires” term is usually associated with actions taken by an organization, such as a corporation or company, which are considered to be beyond the organization’s scope or authority. In the letter, Monroe lists the reasons why Belt specifically is seeking injunctive relief. They center around Belt's being "unable or unwilling to" comply with the ordinance.

“I'm representing a resident of Wayne County and we're suing the city in Chatham County,” he told Connect Savannah. “It's in Superior Court. We're suing for an injunction, a court order telling the city that they cannot enforce this ordinance.”

In a previous interview with WTOC, Monroe said that Belt is disabled and drives a car with manual locks on the doors, making it more difficult to abide by the ordinance, he said.

“When (Belt) travels to Savannah, he carries a firearm for personal protection. He is unable or unwilling to comply with the requirements of the Ordinance,” wrote Monroe in a court document entitled Brief in Support of Plaintiff’s Motion for Interlocutory Injunction. “He is therefore in fear of arrest and prosecution by the City for violating the Ordinance. Because it is clear that state law preempts the Ordinances, Plaintiff moves for an interlocutory injunction restraining enforcement of the Ordinance while this case is pending.”
Court documents show summons were delivered to the assistant for Savannah Mayor Van Johnson on May 3. Sharonte Turner signed as an “assistant” when she received the summons, documents show (see above).

A day prior, City of Savannah Clerk of Council Mark Massey was served documents by Curtis Singleton, an employee of Errand Boy Services, LLC. Singleton signed saying he served the documents to Massey at City Hall on Thursday, May 2 at 11am (see below).
“We knew very clearly that some people would not want this to occur,” Johnson said on Tuesday, May 7 during his weekly media briefing at Savannah City Hall. “And we knew, quite frankly, some people would not be happy. But you don't stop doing the right thing because some people will be unhappy.”

“We expected lawsuits. Matter of fact, we probably welcome them, and we expected some pushback.”

The lawsuit was officially filed on May 1. Two days later, Georgia’s Attorney General (a republican) weighed in on Savannah’s section 9-1028 ordinance, expressing through a letter delivered to City Attorney Bates Lovett his office’s opposition to the law unanimously passed by Savannah’s City Council on April 11.

click to enlarge GUN FIGHT: Savannah Mayor Van Johnson served with court papers for lawsuit challenging city's gun ordinance
Georgia Attorney General, Chris Carr
“This letter is written as the result of the City of Savannah's recent passage of ordinances found in sections 9-1027 and 9-1028 of the City Code,” said Attorney General Christopher M. Carr in the opening portion of his two-page letter to Lovett.

“As you may be aware, this office provides courtesy review of the written legal opinions and conclusions of counsel for local governments. This office was not requested to conduct any review of advice. Had this office been requested to do so in this matter, our analysis would have concluded that the ordinances directly conflict with, and are preempted by, state law.”

“The ordinances relevantly purport to impose restrictions on the possession, transportation, and carrying of firearms in motor vehicles. Under Georgia law, however, ‘no county or municipal corporation shall regulate in any manner: (B) the possession, ownership, transport, [or] carrying . . . of firearms or other weapons.’ The Georgia Constitution provides that ‘no local or special law shall be enacted in any case for which provision has been made by an existing general law.’ Because the General Assembly has expressly designated the regulation of firearms as an issue of general, state-wide concern, no local ordinance can regulate firearms."

First brought to council last Fall by Johnson, the ordinance comes as a response to city firearm data from 2023, says Savannah’s 67th mayor.

“We cannot be economically thriving, and we can't be environmentally healthy unless we are first safe,” he said at Tuesday’s media briefing. “We, as elected officials, are the fathers and mothers of the City of Savannah. We, as the servants of the city, have a primary responsibility to ensure that our residents are safe and we have to be able to follow where the data leads us. The data is very, very clear.”
“In 2023, a total of 244 guns were stolen from cars in Savannah and 203 were stolen from cars that were unlocked and unsecured. So, 244 guns were stolen from cars and 203 of those – over 80 percent – were stolen from unlocked cars. We know that from January 1 (2024) to March 30 (2024), 69 guns were stolen from vehicles in Savannah, and 56 of those were stolen from cars that were unlocked and unsecured. We needed to do something.”

Johnson’s cited data on Tuesday came from the Savannah Police Department, according to the mayor's office. Johnson’s remarks in response to Carr’s letter was the latest bit of evidence pointing to the mayor’s willingness to take on republican state leaders on controversial issues like gun control. After revealing that he is a gun owner “who is frequently armed,” Johnson addressed Georgia issues as much as he did Savannah’s.
click to enlarge GUN FIGHT: Savannah Mayor Van Johnson served with court papers for lawsuit challenging city's gun ordinance
Mayor Van Johnson

“The Attorney General sent a letter to the Savannah City Attorney expressing his unsolicited opinion regarding our ordinance. His letter is very clear and very factual from his point of view,” Johnson said. “He says, very clearly, that ‘this office was not requested to conduct any review or advice.’ And that is absolutely correct. Constitutionality is determined by the courts, and it is Savannah's legal opinion that this ordinance strikes the right balance."

“And so in a state where we have these challenges, not only in Savannah, but across the state, if there's anyone that wants to tell me that people should have the right to be irresponsible with a deadly weapon, if anybody wants to tell me that they should have the right to leave their door wide open their gun in plain view, if anybody should tell me that they should not have the human decency to be concerned about the safety of others, then that is an argument that we have to take up in court. And we are fully prepared to be able to do just that.”

Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and has been writing in Savannah since 2016. Reach him with feedback or story tips at 912-721-4358
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