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Georgia Governor Nathan Deal

Politics

On Gun Laws, State Republicans Are Finding Their Limits Tested

Conservative lawmakers in at least four southern states killed NRA-backed bills in 2016.

A vocal contingent of gun-rights supporters and the National Rifle Association are waging a state-by-state battle to allow private citizens to carry firearms everywhere they see fit, with as few restrictions as possible. In most cases, and in most places, Republican legislators are dutifully falling in line, casting votes in accordance with the gun lobby’s wishes.

Since 2015, Texas, Arizona, and Kansas have passed laws that allow licensed gun owners to bring firearms onto college campuses. Mississippi approved a law that lets holders of enhanced carry licenses to bring their firearms to church; it was also among a handful to give new momentum to the permitless carry movement, which is pushing to allow gun owners to carry concealed firearms in public without training or government authorization. Last Friday, Missouri legislators passed a “sweeping expansion of gun rights” that includes what would be the first new stand your ground law since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. 

But there are indications that lockstep support for the NRA agenda among conservative lawmakers may be cracking. Since January, elected Republicans in four southern states have squashed legislation that sought to lift gun restrictions.

In Florida and in Alabama, legislative leaders blocked votes on campus carry bills. In South Carolina, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair killed a bill that would have allowed people to carry guns in public without first obtaining a permit.

Most dramatically, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a campus carry bill after it was approved with wide support from the state legislature. “Why all of the sudden in 2016 do we need weapons in the hands of college students where they have historically never been allowed?,” Deal asked local reporters earlier this month. “Nobody has answered that question satisfactorily for me.”

In all four states, gun rights enjoy widespread support. But the bills recently derailed by Republican lawmakers were opposed by powerful stakeholders, including higher education officials in Florida and Georgia and law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. Polls in Florida and Georgia indicate that they were broadly unpopular with voters, too.

“The fact that leaders in several gun-friendly states have resisted or opposed [campus carry] indicates the weakness of the argument for doing it,” Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and author of The Politics of Gun Control, tells The Trace. “Those supporting these efforts are likely to find ever-increasing resistance.”

Miguel Diaz De La Portilla is a Florida state senator and an NRA member who holds a license to carry a concealed firearm. As a member of one of Florida’s most prominent political families, his political career spans two decades. But he fought vigorously against loosening gun restrictions in his state.

Last April, De La Portilla used his position on the state Senate Judiciary Committee to defeat a campus carry bill. “I really don’t think it is a good idea for a 21-year-old at a frat keg party to be packing heat,” De La Portilla told the Miami Herald at the time. He defeated the same legislation again this year, along with another bill that would have allowed Floridians to openly carry firearms in public — despite overwhelming approval for both measures in the House of Representatives.

In an interview with The Trace in February, De La Portilla urged his colleagues to stand up to the nation’s most influential gun-rights organization. “There is no question that the NRA is a powerful lobby that intimidates a number of Republican lawmakers,” he said. “But we should stand up for what we think is right.” (The NRA did not respond to a request for comment for this story).

In killing the campus carry bill, De La Portilla was also playing to popular sentiment. In October, a statewide survey found that 73 percent of Floridians opposed the legislation.

Susan MacManus, a professor of politics at the University of South Florida, says the lawmaker likely saved Florida’s Republican party from enacting unpopular laws in an important swing state ahead of a presidential election.

“Republicans were getting mixed signals from people that are generally supportive of what they pursue,” MacManus says. “Every public university was against it. Law enforcement was against it. These groups are usually Republican allies.”

In South Carolina, Larry Martin, a Republican state senator, says he is an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment. But he has also worked to defeat firearms legislation that he has said doesn’t make sense.

As head of the judiciary committee, Martin has, for two consecutive years, refused to hold hearings on a bill that would allow state residents to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Both bills were advanced by the House of Representative with broad support. “[Permitless carry] tacitly encourages the criminal element to disregard the obvious,” he said. “And that is: don’t carry a gun.”

The South Carolina Fraternal Order of Police had also opposed permitless carry.

Alabama is one of the reddest states in the nation. Republicans hold 72 out of 105 House seats and 26 out of 35 Senate seats. Earlier this year, Representative Mack Butler introduced an amendment to the state’s constitution that would have barred institutions of higher education from restricting concealed carry on their campuses (currently, all colleges and universities may make their own policy).

The bill did not make it out of the House Education Policy Committee. The chair of the committee, Republican Terri Collins, never scheduled a vote, and the amendment died. “It would have easily passed had it not been silenced,” Butler said in an email. Collins did not respond to a request for comment.

The most prominent Republican to cross the NRA this year was Georgia’s Governor Deal. In 2014, he signed a controversial bill that allowed concealed firearms in bars and many other public places — a measure that gun safety advocates have decried as a “guns everywhere” law.

In March, the state legislature approved a bill that would have permitted anyone with a concealed weapons license to carry most places on Georgia campuses. All 29 Georgia public colleges signed a statement denouncing the bill, and polling showed that both students and the general public were also opposed.

Deal initially issued a press release indicating that he wanted lawmakers to make some changes, including a provision that would block guns in campus daycares. He also sent a note to the Speaker of the Georgia House. Legislators ignored his pleas.

On May 3, Deal issued a veto that did more than simply indicate an objection to some provisions of the bill: It blasted the entire concept of campus carry.

Deal pointed out that the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision in Heller, which established that individual firearm ownership is a constitutional right, made clear that the Second Amendment does not force communities to open up all public places to guns. He also cited “enlightening evidence” for his position in statements by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who, nearly two centuries earlier, had voted in favor of a firearms ban at the University of Virginia, which they helped found.

It’s not yet clear if, in bucking the NRA’s authority, these politicians have opened a window for more Republicans to follow suit. Deal is not seeking reelection. “For the most part, you can’t object to a pro-gun law in Georgia and make it through a Republican primary,” says Jay Bookman, a political writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

What seems certain is that the NRA will keep lobbying for bills like campus carry in an effort to maintain its position in the gun-rights vanguard. Past experience has taught the organization that it ignores its hardcore members at its own peril. Spitzer points to the 2013 collapse of national legislation sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, which would have expanded background checks in ways even most gun-owners support. “Word got out that the NRA was working quietly with Joe Manchin. They were pummeled by their own right wing, and reversed course,” Spitzer says.

The NRA is more motivated to appeal to these factions than to compromise on legislation that even some Republicans don’t agree with, according to Spitzer.

“The main goal of the NRA is to stoke their own base,” he explains. “In some ways, the failure of these bills can help them, because they can go at it again the next year. It gives them something that they can show their membership they’re fighting for.”

[Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman]

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