If most state lawmakers had their way, campus carry would already be law in Georgia. Last week, a bill to allow concealed weapons on university grounds flew through both chambers of the legislature. But with only three days left in the session, the bill has hit an unexpected roadblock: gun-friendly Governor Nathan Deal.
On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after HB 859 landed on his desk, Deal issued a statement urging legislators to reconsider several aspects of the campus carry measure. The Republican prefaced his message by touting his record as a “lifetime defender and staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights.” But he expressed concerns over the safety of pre-k, elementary, and high school kids who attend classes or day care on college grounds. Deal added that he believes discretion should be given to faculty as to whether or not guns are allowed in disciplinary hearings, and in faculty members’ offices.
Though Deal didn’t explicitly threaten a veto, the statement suggests that he might — an indication that even for a governor who signed a law that removed restrictions on bringing guns into bars, churches, and some government buildings, the prospect of college students stuffing firearms into their backpacks before heading to class needs further consideration.
“Addressing these issues is an important step in ensuring the safety and freedoms of students, faculty and staff in our institutions of higher learning throughout our state,” the statement reads.
The issue has emerged as a favorite of gun-rights advocates and Republican lawmakers, who believe guns on college campuses increase safety and could prevent a mass shooting situation. In 2015 alone, lawmakers introduced at least a dozen bills to expand gun rights on college grounds, though only one state legislature passed a campus carry measure: Texas.
On August 1, the Lone Star state will join the ranks of seven other states — Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Kansas — with campus carry legislation. In 23 states, individual schools are allowed to ban or permit weapons as they see fit, and 19 states have outright prohibitions.
In Georgia, gun-rights advocates are voicing their displeasure with the governor’s last-minute change of heart. “Governor Deal’s newfound concerns about this critical campus safety bill are baffling,” National Rifle Association Spokesperson Catherine Mortensen wrote in a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Two weeks ago he said the existing argument against it ‘lacks validity.’”
Robert Eager, Southeast Regional Director of the pro-gun group Students for Concealed Carry, has no problem with the governor’s proposed amendments, but sees them as an unnecessary obstacle. “I don’t think it’s acceptable that we deprive students of their ability to defend themselves on campus,” he tells The Trace.
The campus carry legislation is seen as an extension of Georgia’s so-called “guns everywhere” bill, which since 2014 has allowed residents with concealed carry permits to carry guns in a variety of places including bars, churches, and government buildings. Georgia has no training requirement to obtain a concealed carry permit.
Like in Texas, there is significant opposition to the bill among university faculty. And like in Texas, faculty members and even top administrators feel they have little sway at the state capitol.
“There is definitely a sense of opposition, but nobody really knows how to respond,” says Ian Bogost, professor of interactive computing at Georgia Tech. “It’s easy to say that you’re not going to come into work, but are you really going to just not come back?”
Earlier this month, the University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby testified in Atlanta, saying, “Campus police will tell you allowing students to have firearms on campus makes their jobs extremely challenging, especially in an emergency.” He said that his opposition to the bill was shared by the Board of Regents, the presidents of it 29 universities in the University of Georgia system, and campus police chiefs.
Students have also voiced opposition. Of more than 5,000 Georgia Tech students who responded to a recent survey about guns on campus conducted by the Georgia Tech Student Government Association, 70 percent indicated that they opposed the bill, while about 23 percent said they supported it.
In late February, a University of Houston Faculty Senate presentation suggested that professors avoid controversial subjects if their students are armed. It’s a worry that La Rhonda Odom, a professor of political science at Savannah State University, shares. Discussions in her classroom tackle charged topics like race, gender, and political power.
“They’re saying in Texas you can’t talk about controversial things, that’s what I do!” she says.
She also worries for the safety of her students. Savannah State University is a historically black college. “Some person who hates black people can just walk up on campus fully armed and be perfectly legal,” she says.