ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers Wednesday launched an effort to examine what’s behind a rise in violent crime in metro Atlanta and consider potential solutions.

“There’s going to be politics in this,” state Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica, chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security, told committee members. “[But] this committee wants to dig down and look at the facts.”

Murders in the city of Atlanta are up 50% so far this year over the same period in 2020, while rapes have increased by 82%. The city also has also seen a surge in incidents of illegal street racing, prompting the General Assembly to pass legislation this year to criminalize organizing, promoting or participating in street races.

Gov. Brian Kemp this week committed up to $5 million of the Governor’s Emergency Fund to support the state Department of Public Safety’s efforts to bring crime in Atlanta under control.

Wednesday’s kickoff meeting was to begin developing a list of witnesses who will be called to testify during a series of hearings the committee plans to hold next month and in July.

Committee members suggested a wide array of potential witnesses, including representatives of police departments, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, business owners and residents of neighborhoods plagued with high crime rates.

Several lawmakers said the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to the rise in crime by increasing poverty among Georgians who have lost their jobs only to suffer delays in receiving unemployment benefits from the state.

Others said more long-term causes are to blame, including the proliferation of mental illness and the easy access to firearms.

“A lot of crimes being committed are because of the gun laws we have on the books,” said Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Hephzibah.

Rep. Clint Crowe, R-Jackson, said another factor behind the rise in crime is the growing number of vacancies in local police departments because discouraged officers are leaving the profession in droves.

“There are many, many open positions,” said Crowe, a former police officer. “But more important, we need to address the morale of the officers who are still there.”

“We’re putting the handcuffs on the wrong people,” Collins added. “We’ve handcuffed law enforcement for way too long. … They feel like they can’t do their jobs because leadership doesn’t have their backs.”

Several committee members pointed to rising crime rates in other major U.S. cities as evidence the problem isn’t limited to Atlanta. At the same time, they said, crime also is affecting communities in rural Georgia, including a rise in gang activity.

“We need to find out what it would take to put this ship back right in the water,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell. “If you don’t have strong public safety, you have chaos.”