In recent years, conservative legislators seeking to burnish their Second Amendment credentials have aggressively pushed to open colleges to guns. Last summer, Texas approved a version of a campus carry law, and now two more Southern states are poised to do the same.
Bills that would relax gun restrictions at public universities in Georgia and Tennessee have cleared the legislatures in both states and now await the signature of their respective Republican governors. Both men, Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia and Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, are staunch supporters of gun rights. In 2014, Deal signed the so-called “guns everywhere” statute, which allows Georgians to carry firearms into churches, some state buildings, and bars. Last year, Haslam signed a bill that made it illegal to put state resources toward the enforcement of federal gun control laws.
But both Deal and Haslam have said they have concerns about the campus carry bills before them, and haven’t publicly indicated whether they will sign the measures into law. Deal has until May 3 to decide, and Haslam has until May 5.
A veto — or two — could chill the national concealed-carry movement, and possibly give conservative governors in other states currently considering similar measures political cover to do the same.
A signature — or two — would almost certainly have the opposite effect, says Robert Spitzer, a legal scholar who researches gun policy at SUNY-Cortland.
“As more states pass these laws, the more they become politically safe,” Spitzer says. “It puts pressure on other state legislatures to advance campus carry legislation and take it more seriously than they are now.”
In addition to Georgia and Tennessee, similar campus carry legislation is being considered in five other states, including Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Texas is the eighth state to adopt a law that gives students the right to carry guns at public universities, joining Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Colorado, Mississippi, and Wisconsin. The Texas law takes effect on August 1.
Twenty-three states allow schools to make their own policies concerning weapons, and 19 states ban firearms from college campuses entirely.
The bill on Deal’s desk in Georgia would allow anyone 21 or older, with the appropriate license, to carry a concealed gun on a public university campus. Firearms would remain prohibited in dormitories, fraternities and sororities, and at sporting events. Deal initially said he supported relaxing campus carry restrictions, but as the bill moved through the state legislature, it provoked an outcry from educators and police. The chancellor of the University System of Georgia, campus police chiefs, the Board of Regents, and the presidents of all 29 state universities have said they oppose the bill.
In mid-March, Deal asked the legislature to address “areas of concern” about the legislation, suggesting that he favored restricting guns from places on campus frequented by children and teens who take classes, or who attend daycare. He also said he believed faculty members should decide whether guns can be carried into their offices or disciplinary hearings. The National Rifle Association called his comments “baffling.”
Deal also sent a handwritten plea to the Speaker of the House that more directly called for exemptions. But the legislature ignored the request, and now Deal must decide whether to approve the law anyway.
The Tennessee campus carry bill, approved by the General Assembly on Wednesday, would allow permit-holding professors and employees to carry concealed firearms at public universities, so long as they notify local law enforcement that they are doing so. Under the bill, authorities would not be allowed to disclose which faculty members are armed. As in Georgia, faculty, students, and many police chiefs have said they oppose the law.
Haslam has said he would prefer to allow each university the option to make its own decisions about whether to allow guns on campus.
Democratic state Senator Lee Harris, who voted against the measure, says he shares those concerns.
“There’s a diversity of opinion out there,” Harris says. “Some people are fearful of guns on campus and some are gun enthusiasts. Let campuses respond to their own communities.”
[Photo: AP Photo/Erik Schelzig]