Veto won’t end battle over guns on Georgia campuses

On Tuesday when Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the “campus carry” bill, a Fort Valley University freshman was fatally stabbed when he stepped in to help female students being harassed by a man on campus. Two days later, the National Rifle Association used this incident as a rallying cry for allowing guns at colleges.

“The tragic death of this young college student illustrates the point that criminals can strike anywhere, anytime, and do not respect ‘gun-free zones,’ ” said Catherine Mortensen, NRA Spokesperson in an email.

In his veto statement, Deal referenced colleges’ status as “sanctuaries of learning” and noted a long history of firearms being barred on campuses. Without strong justification to change that, which he said “campus carry” supporters had not provided, he rejected the bill. Georgia’s college campuses will mostly remain gun-free zones.

But for how long?

The momentum that pushed the Georgia bill to the brink of enactment remains at the forefront for some leading lawmakers and the strong gun lobby. Nationally, moves in states like Texas and Tennessee, which will both implement some form of campus carry this year, are being closely watched.

Texas’ legislation, which goes into effect in August, will allow people with a concealed handgun license to carry their concealed weapon in college and university buildings. Each college and university may determine certain sensitive areas and buildings where concealed weapons will not be allowed. Tennessee’s law, which takes effect in July, allows full-time faculty, staff and other employees of public colleges and universities with handgun-carry permits to carry concealed weapons on campus. Guns are not allowed in stadiums or gymnasiums during school-sponsored events or in meetings regarding discipline or tenure.

And as crimes continue to occur on campuses here, so do the calls to allow students and faculty to carry guns.

Ongoing fight

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that the fight here is not over.

“This was a bill that I think is very important. It’s fully vetted and debated in the committee process. It was passed by both chambers overwhelmingly,” Ralston said. “This fight will go on. The exact form it takes, it’s early to say right now.” The votes were 113 to 59 in the House and 37 to 17 in the Senate.

But, with two years left in office, it is questionable whether Deal would sign any similar campus-carry legislation that comes to his desk, lawmakers say.

“I think after the governor’s veto message, it’s clear that he lays out the case against weapons on campus,” said State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Chamblee, who became one of the most outspoken campus-carry opponents during past legislative session. “He doesn’t say if you had exempted the child-care centers, for example, he would have voted for it … There are several things wrong with it. There is not overwhelming support next year.”

The push for campus carry has a long history in Georgia. Two years ago, the “guns everywhere bill” the Legislature passed would have allowed guns on campus, until the state Senate stripped out that provision. (The bill does allow licensed gun owners to keep guns in their vehicles on campus.)

The powerful University System had been able to beat back repeated campus-carry efforts. But this year, the perfect storm of national developments around the issue and violent campus crimes — including armed robberies at Georgia State and Georgia Tech — seemed too much for even the System to defeat, and the bill was passed.

Then Deal, who has a record of supporting gun owners’ rights, vetoed it.

University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby declined to comment for this story. But, Erroll Davis, who has been in Huckaby’s position, knows the fight is not over.

“I sense there is a push across the country to go back to the old West where everybody carried a gun,” said Davis, who served five years through June 2011 as chancellor of the state’s university system.

“I do not believe it it necessary to carry guns everywhere all the time,” said Davis, a gun owner and hunter, who said he is particularly disturbed when doing common activities like walking into a restaurant and seeing someone with a sidearm having a drink.

At some point, campus carry in some form is likely to pass here, he said. “I don’t doubt we’ll see a lot of states pass (campus carry laws) before we see many of them being repealed as we did in the Wild West,” Davis said. “We’ve been here before. We restricted guns for a good reason because we didn’t like the outcomes.”

As passed, House Bill 859 would have allowed anyone 21 or older with a license to carry a gun anywhere on a public college or university campus, except for inside dormitories, fraternities and sorority houses, and at athletic events. The bill, sponsored by state Reps. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper) and Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton), would also have required the guns be concealed.

As part of his veto, Deal requested reports by Aug. 1 from all of the state’s public colleges and universities outlining safety measures administrators are taking to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

“This is exactly the reason the National Rifle Association is working so hard to change the laws in Georgia to allow law-abiding gun owners with concealed carry permits to carry on campus,” Mortensen said. “College students should have the same right to defend and protect themselves on-campus as they have off-campus.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.