Efforts to expand access to guns across Georgia in places such as schools, college campuses and some courthouses are facing what appear to be their first serious challenges.
Despite overwhelming passage last week in the state House — or maybe because of it — political pressure is coming to bear on House Bill 512 from the likes of Gov. Nathan Deal, the people who run the state’s universities and technical colleges, and judges and school officials from across the state.
If it became law, people licensed to carry concealed weapons could bring guns into all bars, churches, parts of college campuses and inside unsecured government buildings.
But that is only if the bill remains intact. Such a scenario seems unlikely despite a hard push by pro-gun groups in support of the bill, which must now be vetted in the Senate with only eight days left in this year’s legislative session.
“We’ll continue to push and lobby for our side,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of the Georgia Carry advocacy group. “I feel pretty good we’re going to get something out of it.”
Members of the state Board of Regents, which governs the state’s powerful University System of Georgia, took an unusually public stance Tuesday in opposition to HB 512: All 18 members signed a formal letter to legislative leaders and Deal saying they were “deeply concerned” about the bill.
“We firmly believe the current law promotes a safe learning environment for our students and working environment for our faculty and staff,” the letter said. “Our unanimous recommendation is to retain the law in its current form. We kindly ask the legislature to consider our request.”
Deal, through a spokesman, offered support only for one portion of the bill aimed at strengthening the rules about how people with mental illness qualify for a weapons “carry” license. “It expands the population who will be flagged by an instant background check, which the governor believes will protect innocent Georgians,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.
Georgia judges have also begun to speak out.
“We deal at times with very emotional situations,” including murder cases when families of the deceased and the accused face off in court, said David Emerson, president of the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges and a Superior Court judge in Douglas County.
Emerson said he is aware that while the law forbids guns from being taken into courthouses, the legislation would allow an exception by licensed holders when there is no security guard there during business hours.
“This opens the door for someone to go in and leave a weapon for someone at a later time,” he said. Emerson referenced a scene from “The Godfather” when Michael Corleone retrieves a gun someone left for him taped to the toilet in a restaurant bathroom. He then uses the gun to kill a rival mobster and a corrupt cop.
“That’s the sort of thing we have to worry about,” Emerson said. “I hope they’ll reconsider this.”
The debate comes as many states and Congress wrestle with gun laws — especially whether to tighten restrictions in the wake of mass shootings such as December’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn. More than two dozen gun bills have been filed this year in the Georgia Legislature, yet many of them have sought to expand the ability of licensed Georgians to carry weapons.
HB 512 is the biggest of them all, strongly supported by groups such as the 7,300-member Georgia Carry, which has been working almost since 2010 to continue to expand gun laws here.
The regents’ action is significant because they typically rely on the chancellor and his staff to publicly lobby lawmakers. Regents Chairman William “Dink” NeSmith has been on the board since 2008 and said this is the first time he’s seen the regents take this step.
“With all respect to our funding partners in the General Assembly, they know how we feel and we’ll have to respect how they feel,” said NeSmith, who happens to be in the process of renewing his personal gun permit.
Their effort complements those of University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby, a former legislator who still holds sway with colleagues in the state Legislature. He and Ron Jackson, the commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, are “very much opposed” to HB 512, Huckaby said Tuesday.
“We are contending that the present law is working very well and that should not be changed,” Huckaby said. “We will be working over the next number of days … to ideally preserve current law.”
Georgia is considered among the nation’s most friendly states for gun owners. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gives Georgia low marks in its annual scorecard of states’ gun-control measures. On a scale of 0 to 100, in which 100 represents the most stringent gun regulations, Georgia is rated an 8 for reasons including no limits on gun purchases, no required background checks for gun show purchases and no ban on assault weapons.
In 2010, state lawmakers expanded where Georgians with concealed-carry permits could take their guns. A major victory for gun rights advocates, the effort and subsequent court rulings have excluded churches, colleges and schools from concealed-carry law.
College students may store weapons in locked cars on campus, but that’s it. Guns can be carried into bars, but only with the permission of the bars’ owners. The state’s conceal-carry law also prohibits anyone under age 21 from carrying a gun.
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Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Bill Rankin contributed to this article.