Georgia governor seeking changes to campus gun bill

Gov. Nathan Deal has kept the door open for a bill that would legalize firearms on the state's college campuses despite his veto of the legislation last year.

The Republican said this week that he is meeting with supporters on the legislation, House Bill 280, though he did not elaborate on what he said were his ongoing "concerns" with the measure.

“We’re receptive to continuing to talk with them, and hopefully they’re receptive to making some additional changes,” he said. “Perhaps. But whether they do or don’t, that’s their decision.”

It was a tacit reminder of the power of his veto pen, which he wielded last year to nix similar legislation when lawmakers ignored Deal's 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 gun expansion.

Both chambers declined to make changes, and Deal’s veto message invoked an opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that described colleges as “sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed.”

That sweeping language would seem to give him little leeway to reverse his position on this year's legislation, which passed the House last week by a 108-63 vote, largely along party lines. It now moves to the Senate, where Cagle and other chamber leaders have not made it a top priority.

“I do anticipate the Senate will take up the measure,” Cagle said, adding that he was mindful of Deal’s veto last year. “I look forward to working with the governor’s office to see if there’s a compromise there.”

‘The right balance’

This year's measure, sponsored by state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, would allow those 21 and older who hold a Georgia weapons permit to carry concealed weapons on to most parts of college campuses.

It would ban guns inside four places: dormitories, fraternities and sorority houses, and at athletic events. It also would restrict guns from being carried in on-campus preschools, but it doesn’t include the other exemptions that Deal once demanded.

Conservatives and gun rights advocates cast it as a crucial safety measure for students, faculty and administrators to protect themselves. Many cite 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.

“It’s the God-given right that people have to not be a victim in the state of Georgia,” said Ballinger, a Canton Republican who described herself as a victims’ advocate. “States that have enacted campus carry measures have become safer. And we just want to afford that protection to all Georgians.”

The measure is chugging forward despite opposition from the head of the University System of Georgia, Chancellor Steve Wrigley, who urged lawmakers to scuttle a measure he said was not needed. Wrigley told lawmakers debating the measure in February that "current law strikes the right balance to provide security on our campuses."

It was also opposed by most Democrats, who are vastly outnumbered in the Georgia Legislature. Several Democratic lawmakers say that allowing guns in the hands of students in the high-pressure campus atmosphere could lead to more violence.

"We're talking about giving kids guns because we want to protect them," said state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, who told lawmakers she was a victim of a sexual assault last year and briefly considered buying a firearm. "But if I had a gun, that wouldn't have protected me."

Critics of the measure also say it would allow people who are not Georgia residents who hold permits issued outside the state to carry guns on college campuses, potentially allowing 18-year-olds issued gun permits in Alabama and other states to carry weapons on college campuses.

“Governor Deal didn’t veto guns on campus last year because the bill needed minor tweaks — he vetoed because the overarching policy of guns on campus is dangerous and unnecessary,” said Lindsey Donovan, the volunteer leader of the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action, which seeks tougher firearm limits. “Like the majority of Georgians, I was grateful for the governor’s leadership. I urge our state senators to reread his veto, which eloquently made the case against guns on campus. Georgians won’t be fooled by veiled attempts to make this bill more palatable and neither will our governor.”

If House lawmakers have their way, the legislation will move forward without major changes. Ralston said lawmakers tried to be “accommodating to him and his concerns” when asked why the measure didn’t include the changes Deal called for last year.

“This is the will of the House of Representatives, by a very clear margin, after a bill that has gone through an extensive, very detailed process going back to April of last year,” he said. “What you saw today was a product of a lot of the discussions.”

Deal, for his part, smiled and then dodged the question when asked whether his stance on the debate had changed after last year’s landmark veto.

“The process is not finished of course, we’ll have to wait and see what the Senate does,” he said. “We’ll have to stand with that for now.”

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