Controversial campus gun measure becomes law in Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 280 into law Thursday, making it legal to carry concealed firearms on public college and university campuses. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 280 into law Thursday, making it legal to carry concealed firearms on public college and university campuses. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Gov. Nathan Deal signed a measure Thursday that would allow college students and others to carry concealed weapons on campus, despite vetoing similar legislation last year amid an uproar from gun control advocates.

The measure, known as the “campus carry” bill, would allow people with firearms permits to carry concealed guns onto public college and university campuses, and it has been long sought by conservatives and Second Amendment activists who cast it as a crucial safety measure for students, faculty and staff to protect themselves.

Deal nixed a similar gun measure last year after lawmakers defied his personal request for more exceptions to the expansion. His scathing veto invoked a 2008 opinion by then-Justice Antonin Scalia that described colleges as “sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed.”

In a statement, Deal said he signed the measure because it may have greater significance for students who are going to or from a campus and may have to travel through “dangerous territory.”

“At the present time, assailants can, and do, target these students knowing full well that their victims are not permitted to carry protection,” Deal said, “even those who are weapons carry license holders, because they are either going to or coming from a campus where no weapons are allowed.”

The governor said he was willing to reopen the debate this year as long as lawmakers acceded to his demands, and they struck a compromise that appeared to do just that. The bill is designed to bar guns from on-campus child care facilities, faculty and administrative office space, and disciplinary meetings.

Critics said that allowing guns on campus would create an unsafe environment and lead to more killings and suicides on campuses. They hoped an apparent grammatical error in the measure — a missing comma in one section — would scuttle the bill. And they tried to remind Deal of his veto at every turn.

“This flip-flop will be what Georgians remember about our governor for years to come — that he bent to the Washington gun lobby,” said Lindsey Donovan, who heads the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “This will be the legacy he leaves behind.”

Still, there was little mystery about Deal’s decision. He had telegraphed for weeks that he was going to sign the legislation, often saying that it was “significantly different” from last year’s version of the bill.

“You have to give credit to them doing that. I had made some of these suggestions last year, and they were not heeded,” Deal said of the legislative compromise in a recent interview. “This year, not only did they take my suggestions, they added a few of their own.”

The governor’s office said the law will take effect July 1.

Higher education officials are scrambling to address the changes. In a brief statement, the University System of Georgia asked its institutions not to make policy changes until receiving more guidance.

A five-year fight

The campus gun measure was Deal’s highest-profile decision in an otherwise tame legislative session, and it came less than a week before his deadline to either sign or veto legislation.

House Bill 280 would allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry firearms on public college and university campuses — but it includes a long list of exemptions where guns are still forbidden.

Those exceptions also include dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, on-campus areas where high school students attend class, and buildings used for athletic events.

It also makes no change to Georgia law that already requires anyone seeking a state permit to carry a concealed gun to be at least 21 years old, to be fingerprinted and to pass a background check.

Deal’s signing was a long-sought victory for conservative lawmakers. A coalition of Republicans had pushed the legislation for five consecutive years, often citing recent armed robberies committed against students at Atlanta universities. And some students said it would make them feel safer.

Georgia State University law student Alex Ward, who has a state license to carry a concealed gun, gave Deal credit for signing a “common-sense gun bill.” He said it means he won’t be “defenseless” as he’s walking to and from class at the downtown Atlanta campus.

“They’re looking for easy targets,” said Ward, who has a state license to carry a concealed gun. “Unarmed, easy targets. For me, it’s not so much I can directly carry — as great as that is — but there’s now another level of deterrence.”

Opponents said the expansion would inevitably lead to more violence, and the high-profile critics include the leaders of the state’s higher education system and several Republicans who represent districts that are home to colleges.

The gun bill was one of the most consequential pieces of legislation on Deal’s desk after a General Assembly session where he managed to avoid other contentious debates.

Lawmakers didn’t return any form of the “religious liberty” legislation he vetoed last year after the governor and House leaders banded against the controversial proposals, which critics cast as legalized discrimination against gay couples.

And lawmakers failed to pass legislation backed by the Senate that would provide a $200 million income tax cut — mostly to wealthier residents — and force e-retailers to collect sales taxes on what they sell. Deal had warned of the “temptation” of broad tax cuts that could jeopardize the state’s fiscal health.

The fight over the measure might not be over. Some critics have pointed to a missing comma in a provision that could be interpreted to allow guns in faculty offices. Litigation is not out of the question.

Student and faculty groups also warn of long-term consequences of the changes. They say professors at Georgia universities could seek jobs elsewhere and others could turn down job offers. And they worry that teachers and students could avoid controversial topics if guns are in the classrooms.

“If this legislation is enacted, and students and faculty are hesitant to discuss sensitive or controversial topics because of the presence of guns on campus and in our classrooms, the academic integrity of UGA will be greatly compromised,” read a resolution from the University of Georgia’s Franklin College Faculty Senate opposing the bill.

Deal has said that he worries about college students being targeted by criminals in off-campus parking lots. And he called on local police departments to tighten security around campuses, saying he’s “not satisfied” with their response so far.

“It’s one thing to simply rail against students having the right to defend themselves,” Deal said. “But those students have a right to expect that civilian law enforcement would give them the protection they deserve.”