May 2, 2016 - Buford - Gov. Nathan Deal evaded questions related to campus carry legislation as he spoke with the media after he signed next year's budget at Lanier High School in Buford. The state budget includes the first major pay raises for 200,000 teachers and state employees since before the Great Recession. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Deal rejects Georgia’s ‘campus carry’ bill

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation Tuesday that would allow college students to carry concealed guns onto campuses after lawmakers defied his personal request for changes that would exempt child-care centers and make other exceptions to the gun rights expansion.

The decision to reject House Bill 859, which would legalize firearms at all public colleges in Georgia, comes almost a month after the governor infuriated many religious conservatives by vetoing “religious liberty” legislation that would have extended legal protections to opponents of same-sex marriages.

“If the intent of HB 859 is to increase safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result,” Deal wrote in his veto message. He coupled it with an executive order instructing the higher education system to submit a report on campus security measures by August.

“From the early days of our nation and state, colleges have been treated as sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed,” he said in the statement. “To depart from such time honored protections should require overwhelming justification. I do not find that such justification exists.”

Deal signed another bill, House Bill 792, that will allow anyone 18-years and older to carry a stun gun on campus. Supporters dubbed that less controversial bill “campus carry light.”

The veto prompted swift reaction from both sides. Prominent critics of the legislation immediately praised the governor and supporters of the bill vowed to try again next year.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson was among the relieved. “I commend the governor for vetoing the bill. We pointed out many flaws in this piece of legislation during the session and hope that this will put the matter the rest,” he said.

Lindsey Donovan, leader of the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action, thanked the Georgians who rallied against the bill and thanked the governor for listening.

“The leadership shown by Gov. Deal with this veto should stand as proof to other elected officials that this is not a partisan issue and that they too can stand up to the gun lobby. I’m thrilled that our voices were heard and that the will of the gun lobby no longer goes unchecked in the state of Georgia.”

Supporters of the measure, known as the “campus carry” bill, say they won’t give up. House Speaker David Ralston said that it is “not the end of the discussion.”

“At a time when our Second Amendment rights are under attack, I believed and still believe that it is very important that we do all that is necessary and proper to strengthen our constitutional protections,” he said in a statement. “Georgians should not be required to give up their constitutional rights when they set foot on a college campus.”

NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said in a statement that the group is disappointed by Deal’s decision, and that it anticipates “working with them next session to pass this important safety legislation.”

On the campus of Georgia State University Tuesday evening several students expressed relief that Deal had vetoed the bill.

“I don’t think guns on campus was a good idea in the first place,” said Ronald Williams, 20, a Georgia State sophomore. “I know that with an open campus like ours, you can’t ensure that people aren’t carrying (guns) that we don’t know about, but allowing more guns is not the answer.”

Supporters of the legislation had cited recent armed robberies and other crimes committed against students on campuses, including Georgia State and Georgia Tech, as a reason for allowing guns on campus. The bill was buoyed by a series of those robberies that occurred inside Georgia State’s library.

Opponents argued that having more guns on campus could actually lead to more violence.

Deal’s veto nullifies that argument, said Isaac Wittenstein, but the legislation was unnecessary anyway. “The mentality around campus carry, especially with what we’ve seen in other states, is that it means undue stress for students, faculty and staff, and unnecessary costs to universities,” said Wittenstein, 22, a senior at Georgia Tech.

The measure had long been sought by conservatives and Second Amendment activists who cast it as a crucial safety measure for students, faculty and administrators to protect themselves. Until this year, their efforts were blocked by the powerful University System of Georgia and college presidents, who warn that expanding gun rights to campuses would increase the likelihood of violent shootings.

This year, though, legislative leaders united behind a measure that would allow anyone 21 or older with a weapons license to carry a gun anywhere on a public college or university campus, except for inside four places: dormitories, fraternities and sorority houses, and at athletic events. Everywhere else, including campus child care centers, music concert venues and classrooms, would have been open under the bill.

Long an opponent of the measure, Deal said in February that fears that campus carry would lead to a “Wild West scenario” were overblown. But shortly after the measure passed, Deal sent handwritten notes to House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle urging them to exempt on-campus child care facilities, faculty or administrative office space and disciplinary meetings in a separate measure.

Both declined to make changes, and Deal was soon deluged with personal appeals from Georgians on all sides of the debate.

The National Rifle Association, which endorsed Deal’s gubernatorial bid, called on supporters to urge that the governor “not bow to elitists who don’t support your right to self-defense.” Gun control advocates launched social media campaigns and staged protests at universities, An Open Records Act request revealed hundreds of emails and letters flooding Deal’s office about the policy.

Deal’s veto carries political consequences. A term-limited governor with no further political ambitions, he has the freedom to defy his party’s base with a veto. But doing so would make it even harder for Deal to carry out the linchpin of his second-term agenda: a 2017 push to “revolutionize” how the state’s education system is funded.

“Admittedly, it’s another tough decision. Would I have preferred they not put that on my plate (without the changes he advocated)? Yes, I would have preferred that,” he said in an interview before the decision. “But they did. And I have to come, once again, to doing what I think is in the best interest of all the citizens of the state.”

Deal's veto comes a day after Tennessee’s governor allowed campus carry legislation to become law in his state. In Tennessee, college faculty and staff with handgun licenses will be allowed to carry guns on campus. A campus carry provision in Texas is set to take effect in August.

Gun rights groups made clear the fight isn’t over. The NRA said it planned to work again next year with Cagle, Ralston and other supporters “to pass this important safety legislation.”And state Rep. Rick Jasperse, a Jasper Republican who sponsored the measure, said the debate is just getting started.

“I have no animosity toward the governor, and I know a lot of people would like to put this behind them,” said Jasperse. “But it’s coming back next year. If it’s not me, it’s going to be somebody else. We will be back.”

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Staff writer Janel Davis contributed to this article.