A pedestrian climbs a stairwell to the library at the Georgia State University campus Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Atlanta. Anyone licensed to carry a gun in Georgia could carry concealed handguns on public college campuses under a bill passed Monday by the Georgia House. Several recent armed robberies at the library on the Georgia State University campus renewed backers' argument for carrying on campuses. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Georgia House votes to legalize guns on state’s college campuses

The state House voted Monday to legalize carrying concealed guns on Georgia’s college campuses, upping pressure on their Senate counterparts to overturn the state’s longtime ban on so-called “campus carry.”

State Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, led the charge for House Bill 859, a piece of legislation he informally dubbed the state’s Campus Safety Act and called “a real-world solution to a real-world problem.”

That cheer was seconded by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who after the vote said that “the House took a very clear position that the Second Amendment does not stop at the edge of a college campus.”

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

The state’s Board of Regents, which regulates the state’s 29 public colleges and universities, has long opposed campus carry, and it has successfully blocked previous attempts to allow guns on campuses. 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.

Recent events close to the Georgia Capitol added to the latest push. A few blocks from the Capitol, robberies at Georgia State University’s downtown campus library — committed within weeks of each other, with two occurring on the same day — have increased support among some students and lawmakers for campus carry.

“This bill will give students an opportunity to be one step closer to being able to properly defend themselves,” said Ja’Quan Taylor, a Georgia Tech senior and president of the university’s Students for Concealed Carry chapter. “This could be the difference between life or death for a student that is being threatened by a deadly weapon.”

If the legislation is passed, Taylor, 21, said he plans to take advantage.

“Any opportunity that I am granted to better prepare and defend myself will always be taken,” he said.

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration, where the chamber’s Republican lawmakers spoke only cautiously Monday about the bill.

Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, said he supports the Second Amendment on gun rights, but he wanted to wait until the legislation came to his chamber for debate before commenting further. Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, said he agreed in principle to the idea of the bill but didn’t want to comment further in case the bill ended up in his committee.

State Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, however, said many Democrats in the chamber oppose the idea.

“It doesn’t guarantee safety at all,” Jones said. “Persons have to be trained to use a weapon in a matter to fight back. Georgia doesn’t do any kind of training to allow you to carry even if you have a permit. It doesn’t guarantee that you will protect anyone or that the law is going to work.”

Opponents in the House shared many of those same concerns during the hour-and-a-half debate leading up to the 113-59 vote for the bill. It would allow the weapons with “no instruction, no training, no supervision,” said state Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone.

“We’re putting (students) in volatile situations with alcohol and hormones,” Fludd said.

State Rep. Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, went further. He read parts of an opinion by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who in 2008 wrote the majority opinion overturning a handgun ban in Washington, D.C. But, Scalia wrote, “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Gun rights advocates were having none of it.

“Ninety-two percent of all the slaughters and mass killings were done on ‘no carry’ property,” said House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, talking about places that traditionally ban guns such as schools. “Ninety-three percent of all assaults carried out with a weapon are done with somebody who does not have a license and it’s illegal for them to carry.”

“Would one person that had a license that was legally carrying could have made any difference?” Meadows added. “The answer is yes. Plain and simple.”

A spokesman for the University System of Georgia said it supports current law but declined to comment further.

The Technical College System of Georgia also declined to comment. That system of 22 public colleges across the state educates and trains a large number of nontraditional and older students. About 70 percent of tech college system students are age 21 and older.

Although affecting only Georgia’s public colleges, the bill has received the attention of private college leaders as well.

Clark Atlanta University President Ronald Johnson, who was at the Capitol on Monday, was closely monitoring the debate.

Before coming to the private historically black institution in Atlanta last year, Johnson was a dean at a public university in Houston.

Texas lawmakers approved campus carry for the state’s public college campuses last year. The Texas law takes effect Aug. 1.

“The challenge with campus carry is that our (campus) police lose control of what happens on the campus,” Johnson said. “You have people who walk around and they become vigilantes. Someone can be upset with someone and they immediately pull out the weapon, so the police force becomes ineffective.”

“You also have people who show up to campus who are up to no good, who now know that people are now carrying, who shoot first and ask questions later,” he said. On the urban campus of Texas Southern University, where Johnson previously worked, keeping those kinds of people off campus was a challenge, he said.

“On paper (campus carry) sounds like a good idea, but in practice it’s just not,” he said. “I see it from the side of an administrator of a public university in Houston and know full well that all the ailments of society are found at universities, and the last thing you want to do is give it gunpowder.”

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