Bill to legalize guns at Georgia’s colleges advances

The state Senate made no changes Monday to a bill that would legalize firearms at Georgia's colleges, bringing it one step closer to passage when a chamber panel advanced the measure that would allow college students to carry guns on campus.

The move makes House Bill 859 eligible for a floor vote in the Senate later this week, and it sets up a scenario that could see final passage well before the Legislature ends its work this year on March 24.

It also represents a power move on behalf of the Senate's GOP leadership in an election year for all state lawmakers, since the Senate in years past has stopped similar measures. The Senate Judiciary Committee, after holding a three-hour hearing last week, took no public testimony Monday before the party-line 5-3 vote. Five Democratic amendments to the bill also failed to win support.

"This bill is about personal safety and the ability of Georgians to defend themselves as needed," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper.

The vote still came as an emotional blow to opponents, who have packed Senate meeting rooms after the bill passed the state House with limited public input.

“Good guys with guns don’t wear big buttons that say ‘I’m a good guy with a gun,’ ” said a visibly angry Carol Allen, a Georgia volunteer with the gun-control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who after the vote approached committee members to say she would personally campaign against those who supported the bill. Her son, who graduated from Georgia State, is headed to graduate school at the University of Georgia this fall. She also has a daughter headed to Georgia Tech.

The legislation under consideration in Georgia 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 dormitories, fraternities and sorority houses, and at athletic events.

HB 859 also would mandate that those weapons be concealed — something proponents say makes it safer — since Georgia requires gun owners to apply for gun “carry” permits that require fingerprinting and background checks.

Allowing guns on campus has long been opposed by the powerful University System of Georgia and leaders of the state’s universities and colleges over concerns about students’ maturity and safety on campus. Hank Huckaby, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, testified to that effect last week.

“Campus police will tell you allowing students to have firearms on campus makes their jobs extremely challenging, especially in an emergency,” Huckaby said.

Supporters, however, said eight states allow campus carry, and nearly two dozen others allow individual schools to decide. They have also linked their effort to the safety of students, noting events such as recent robberies at Georgia State University's downtown Atlanta campus library.

"We heard from a lot of Georgia State and Georgia Tech students who commute and they park 10 blocks from campus and walk through a very bad area of the city, and I challenge people to do a tour and walk the perimeter of the campus at night, 10 or 11 at night, and let's see if you like that," said state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, who co-sponsored the bill. "I think it's empowering to people both on and off campus to be able to not be a victim, and that's why we're pushing the legislation."

The Senate Judiciary Committee's OK came as a television ad targeting efforts to legalize firearms on Georgia's college campuses began airing in Atlanta over the weekend as opponents of campus carry tried to increase pressure to stop it.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun-control group, sponsored the 30-second ad. Titled "Bad Decisions," it focuses on whether students always use the proper judgment and responsibility — especially when alcohol is involved. Gov. Nathan Deal recently dismissed arguments against the bill as lacking "validity." The legislation also already has backing from top leaders of both chambers of the Legislature.

Efforts to legalize guns on campus have a long history at the Capitol. The most recent attempt came in 2014, when the state House voted to legalize campus carry as part of a broader effort dubbed the "Guns Everywhere Bill." The Senate, however, stripped the campus carry language out of the bill before passage.

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