In the waning hours of Georgia’s 2017 legislative session, those inclined to gamble were betting that House Bill 280, the fifth attempt in five years at allowing concealed weapons on the campuses of state colleges and universities, would not survive.

The legislation had passed from the House to the Senate and been kicked back to the House again. On Sine Die — or the final day for legislation to work through the General Assembly to the governor’s desk — HB 280 appeared to be flat-lining. Frankensteined at each turn to address objections raised a year earlier by Governor Nathan Deal’s emphatic veto of 2016’s campus carry bill, HB 859, the new legislation grew cluttered with restrictions, notably against carrying guns in on-campus childcare centers and in facilities that serve high schoolers taking college courses. All the while, the legislation remained highly unpopular with the majority of Georgians, especially those who study or work at its colleges and universities.

As the deadline ticked down in the capitol, most of the state’s residents and many of its political leaders were transfixed by an inferno blazing under I-85, the interstate that bisects Atlanta. The flames ultimately caused a portion of the highway to collapse. For the next few hours, Georgians watched endlessly looping footage of the highway crumbling like a sandcastle and, once it was clear there had been no casualties, got busy creating memes about the impending crisis for Atlanta’s already notorious traffic. Inside the state house, negotiators from the House and Senate hammered out revisions to HB 280, bringing their report to lawmakers’ desks at 11:45 p.m., with minutes left on the legislative clock.

Journalists scrambled for a copy of the new bill, tweeting out pictures of its final language.

As the updated legislation circulated, three Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in voting to suspend their own rules, extending the midnight deadline and giving HB 280 the extra time needed for lawmakers to enter their positions for the record.

“Everyone looked at each other and said, ‘Wait, is this happening?’” said one person who was present.

It happened. HB 280 passed the house 96-70. Then, in the early minutes of March 31, the bill made it through the senate 33-21.

“There wasn’t really any debate,” said State Senator Elena Parent, a Democrat who opposed the legislation. What the guns-on-campus bill did have, she added, was “people determined to get it through.”

Thus did lawmakers start the clock on a 40-day deadline for Deal, a second-term Republican, to decide by May 9 whether the 2017 version of campus carry is something he’s willing to sign. Since then, he’s already approved HB 406, allowing concealed weapons license holders to carry firearms in more neighboring states, and he cut the opening ribbon at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Atlanta. At that event, Deal characterized the revised campus-carry proposal as a “much different bill.” But on Monday, the governor also urged police departments to offer “extraordinary additional support” to campus law enforcement to protect students, faculty, and staff. If last year is any indication, he’ll take until the last minute to make his decision.

Deal’s deadline, it’s worth noting, falls after final exams at most of Georgia’s public colleges. The class of 2017 likely will have marched in graduation exercises before the governor makes a decision that affects their alma mater.

Opposed on campus, and off

For the most part, the professors who instructed those graduating students are vehemently opposed to campus carry. On April 18, the faculty of Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, the largest and oldest college at the University of Georgia, the state’s flagship institution, published a statement addressed to Deal. It warned that his signature would “also very likely prompt some faculty to look for employment in states without campus carry, and could encourage our best and most heavily recruited faculty to more strongly consider offers from other institutions of higher learning that do not allow concealed weapons on campus.”  

Steve Wrigley, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, testified in February against the bill, pointing out that the school system already employs more than 800 police officers. His testimony was in turn endorsed by heads of state institutions including Jere Morehead, the president of UGA, and Sam Olens, the former state attorney general and GOP stalwart who now helms Kennesaw State University.

At the University of Georgia, the independent student news organization The Red & Black and the university’s Center for the Study of Global Issues paired up to poll their school on political issues including campus carry. In 2016, the sweeping measure put forward would have allowed concealed weapons everywhere but dorms, fraternity and sorority houses, and sports venues. (Disclosures: Rebecca Burns serves as publisher of The Red & Black and teaches as an adjunct instructor at UGA; Nate Harris is a senior reporter at The Red & Black.) The survey, which queried a combined 4,300 students, staff, and faculty, found 69 percent of the university community opposed to campus carry.

UGA is located in the quintessential college town of Athens, surrounded on its outskirts by farms and forest. It’s not the sort of school that campus-carry supporters focus on when selling the policy. Instead, they point to the self-defense benefits it could provide to students who attend urban campuses like Georgia State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, both in downtown Atlanta. But in a 2016 survey of more than 4,000 Georgia Tech students, campus carry found little favor among the school’s city-dwelling students, 70 percent of whom opposed last year’s bill.

A pedestrian walks through the Georgia Tech campus as the Atlanta skyline stands in the background.
A pedestrian walks through the Georgia Tech campus as the Atlanta skyline stands in the background.

On other questions, Georgia is, to put it mildly, a firearm-friendly place. In 2014, lawmakers passed, and Deal signed, the so-called guns everywhere law, which allows weapons to be carried in churches and bars. But many residents remain wary about allowing guns into colleges, with their volatile mix of young adults, alcohol, and high emotions. In a 2017 poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 54 percent of Georgians opposed campus carry. In March of this year, the editorial board of the Savannah Morning News called for lawmakers to vote against HB 280 as it worked its way through the legislative process.

Charles Bullock, a political scientist at UGA, credits opponents of campus carry from within the upper ranks of the state’s higher education system for stoking skepticism among an otherwise pro-gun populace.

“I suspect the explanation may be that University System of Georgia was better organized in its opposition,” he said. “It has a fair amount of respect and credibility, and at least the last two chancellors have opposed campus carry — as did most university presidents.”

Bullock also wonders if campus officials may be tapping into school spirit among some legislators. “Most Georgia lawmakers have a good feeling about their alma maters, and don’t want to upset them,” he said.

In 2016, one of the most eloquent voices against the idea of guns on campus was that of Deal himself. In his lengthy statement on the veto of HB 859, the governor wrote that he had found “enlightening evidence” in the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The two Founding Fathers had attended a board meeting at the University of Virginia in 1824, at which the governing body decided that no student should “keep or use weapons or arms of any kind.”

“From the early days of our nation and state, colleges have been treated as sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed,” Deal’s veto statement read. “To depart from such time-honored protections should require overwhelming justification.”

The bill presented to him last year, Deal wrote, did not meet that test.

Resistance fatigue

The sweeping campus legislation presented to Deal last year spawned a broad outpouring of protests. In addition to generating demonstrations on campuses and at the state capitol, campus carry became something of a cause célèbre as Georgia-bred entertainers like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Tituss Burgess of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt weighed in.

This year, sentiment remained strongly against HB 280, but yielded far fewer attention-getting rallies.

“People seem to be having a hard time putting together more energy for a second round,” Matthew Boedy, a professor of English at the University of North Georgia and outspoken critic of campus carry said in an interview a week before the end of the legislative session. “For some it’s a question of ‘How do I continue this fight?’’’

It also may be that all the passion poured into protesting Trump administration policies on immigration, the environment, and health care left little to spare for the fight against guns on campus. Tim Denson is the president of Athens for Everyone, a community group that protested campus carry along with University of Georgia students and faculty both in 2016 and 2017.

“Last year it brought together students and faculty and the community,” he said. “Athens is a city where the university is very much intermixed with the community; we have to live with each other. A policy that affects one affects both.”

People seemed to be pulled “in multiple directions,” Denson added.

Whereas past rallies at UGA were attended by hundreds, a protest staged on April 26 drew fewer than three dozen people.

Student brought out their signs at a recent demonstration against campus carry at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Those students who did made it out to protest campus carry at the University of Georgia came armed with signs.

Stretched thin on the ground, opponents of campus carry have turned to digital organizing, promoting a texting campaign asking Deal to veto HB 280. Individual faculty members have also contributed their own acts of virtual resistance.

Anthony Grooms, a professor of English at Kennesaw State University, circulated an email asking fellow instructors to contact the governor. Grooms frames campus carry as posing an occupational hazard.

“I just don’t see how youth and emotion and firearms mix,” Grooms said. “I teach poetry. These are people who get highly emotional about metaphor. How will they react about a bad grade?”

“We don’t always get what we want”

Advocates for gun rights grumble that lawmakers gave too much away in their the horse-trading to make HB 280 more appealing to the governor. Addressing objections posed by Deal last year, sponsor Mandi Ballinger, a Republican representing a district 45 minutes north of Atlanta, introduced a bill that extended exemptions to on-campus childcare centers and areas of campus regularly used to instruct high-school students. During the last-minute negotiating on the night of March 30, additional prohibitions were added, barring concealed guns in faculty and administrative offices and rooms where disciplinary hearings are held.

“Unfortunately, in the legislative process, we don’t always get everything we want,” Ballinger said when presenting the finished bill to the House.

Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, would agree with her assessment.

“It was not the bill we wanted; it is considerably less than we wanted,” he said.

Still, Henry said he is inclined to count HB 280 as a win if it makes it into law. “It is a starting point for us to work with,” a step toward his group’s ultimate goal: “Make the Second Amendment mean what it said, and allow citizens to freely arm themselves.”

Representative Mandi Ballinger, House sponsor of HB 280, and Representative Rick Jasperse, a supporter of the legislation, watch the debate over campus carry in the senate.
Representative Mandi Ballinger, House sponsor of HB 280, and Representative Rick Jasperse, a supporter of the legislation, watch the debate over campus carry in the senate.

Henry said that, from his organization’s perspective, the “antis,” as he calls gun control proponents, are missing the larger point: Concealed weapons already can be carried in many places in Georgia.

“If people want to stay off campus because there might be a gun in a car or a backpack, they should keep out of Walmart, Publix or Kroger; firearms are in there,” he said.

His example of armed grocery shoppers was not theoretical. Henry conducted our phone interview from the parking lot of a Publix supermarket, into which he would take his gun after completing the call. Earlier he ran another errand at Walmart, toting his gun as he navigated the aisles.

“I carry everywhere I go where it is legal for me to carry,” he explained in a follow-up email.

Among legislators returning for the 2017 session, six House members and three Senate members who voted for the more expansive campus-carry bill in 2016 came down against the final version of HB 280.

One of them was State Senator Bill Cowsert, a Republican whose district includes Athens. His objection was partly the result of hundreds of messages from constituents asking him to vote against the bill. State Representative Regina Quick, a fellow Athens Republican, also was among those who switched her vote, even after backing the original version of HB 280. She said her position was based on “unclear exceptions” in the final version of the bill.

Republicans who broke ranks to vote against this year’s campus-carry bill got some political cover from one half of Georgia’s delegation to the U.S. Senate.

In a March phone call with constituents, third-term GOP Senator Johnny Isakson told listeners, “One thing I am not for is putting guns in schools.”

Deal or no Deal?

One point that may hold up HB280 is academic in the most literal sense. In the late-night scramble to push through the bill, lawmakers inserted a provision intended to address the security concerns of faculty. The added text states that concealed carry permission shall “not apply to faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted.”

The issue is whether the addendum is missing a comma after “offices” — which would mean that said spaces are generally exempted from campus carry — or whether legislators only intend such rooms to be gun-free when they’re hosting students facing disciplinary action.

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“This is what happens when you push something through at the last minute,” said Stefan Turkheimer, chief of staff to Senator Parent.

While grammarians savor the teachable moment that the missing comma may present, HB 280 now sits, along with hundreds of other bills, on the crowded desk of Nathan Deal. Last year, he expended considerable political capital and vetoed both campus carry and a “religious freedom” bill widely considered to be discriminatory to the LGBT community. As he works his way toward another decision on campus carry this spring, a key variable may be how much of Deal’s remaining political capital he feels he needs to devote to a cause onto which he’s pinning his legacy, a plan for the state to intervene in failing public schools. Deal — who has not lost a race since 1980 — is facing the end of his term in January 2019.

Because proponents of campus carry addressed Deal’s specific objections to the 2016 bill, one-by-one, another veto may open the governor to perceptions that he’s not an honest broker when hashing out legislation with his party colleagues. Deal may also feel some loyalty to the NRA, which supported his 2014 gubernatorial re-election bid to the tune of $600,000-plus.

On the other side of the ledger is the lofty rhetoric he deployed while rejecting campus carry. Deal wasn’t quibbling over details by the time he spiked the 2016 proposal. Citing the positions of Jefferson and Madison, he instead produced a veto statement that could be read as a repudiation of the very idea of armed college students.

“The approval of these specific prohibitions relating to ‘campus carry’ by the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the principal author of the United States Constitution should not only dispel any vestige of Constitutional privilege,” Deal wrote, “but should illustrate that having college campuses free of weapons has great historical precedent.”

As the days tick down to Deal’s May 9 deadline, will Georgians see a return of the eloquent defender of campuses as sanctuaries? Or will a pragmatic operator — a politician who earlier in his career switched parties in order to improve his electoral fortunes in a reddening state — yield to the persistence of campus carry’s champions?

“I think the governor, in his heart of hearts, thinks it’s a bad idea,” said Parent, the Democratic state senator from the Metro Atlanta area. “The question that remains is: will he die on that hill?”