Georgia State University law student Alex Ward gets out of night classes and makes the lonely walk from the university’s downtown Atlanta campus toward the parking deck where he’s left his car.
He has a state license to carry a concealed weapon, but he is prohibited from bringing a firearm onto any part of university property. So while he walks through Woodruff Park and weaves and bobs around property not owned by Georgia State, he remains unarmed in areas where he believes others could have a gun.
“My basic reason for supporting campus carry is I’m allowed to carry pretty much everywhere else in the state of Georgia without any issue, but as soon as I cross that imaginary line, I’m suddenly too dangerous to protect myself,” said Ward, 29, who grew up in Peachtree Corners and has testified at the Capitol in support of campus gun legislation. “The law-abiding among us are defenseless, and the criminals know that, too.”
The Georgia Legislature for the fifth year in a row is considering a measure that would allow college students to carry concealed weapons on public campuses across the state. Last year’s legislation got as far as Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk before being dispatched with a veto.
Now proponents think they are nearing the finish line, as opponents continue to rally against an idea they say would create an unsafe environment for students and faculty.
33 states allow possibility
“When guns are present, people are safer,” University of Georgia freshman Josh Horne, a biochemical engineering major from Marietta, said last week.
The feeling motivates many supporters, despite some acknowledging they likely hold a minority opinion among their peers.
“There are certainly more students who oppose campus carry than support it,” Ward said before adding that the provision being debated in Georgia would only allow the carrying of concealed guns, which requires a license. “Those students in opposition wouldn’t even know that somebody is actively carrying, yet they would still receive benefit of the uncertainty that the criminals have to deal with.”
Students such as Asma Elhuni don’t see it that way.
“I’m a Muslim, I’m a woman, I’m a minority, a person of color. I have all these things going into a school. And yeah, I’m terrified every single day,” said Elhuni, a Georgia State senior from Lilburn majoring in political science. “And I feel like I do need protection. So I carry a Taser and don’t walk alone. But the idea that students can carry guns on campus terrifies me.”
Nine states allow concealed weapons on public postsecondary campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. An additional 24 allow each college or university to decide whether to ban or allow concealed carry weapons on campus.
Georgia is not among any of them.
It is not clear, however, whether campuses are safer for it. A study released last fall by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded the presence of guns would, instead, likely lead to more shootings, killings and suicides on campus, especially among students.
House Bill 280 would allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry firearms on public college and university campuses, with exceptions that include dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and buildings used for athletic events. On-campus child care centers would also be excluded, as would areas on some college campuses where high school students attend class.
The bill awaits a Senate vote, having passed the House weeks ago. With just two days left in this year’s legislative session, officials say lawmakers are negotiating with Deal’s office over a potential compromise.
“In the world in which I grew up, guns were just very commonplace,” said state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, who is the sponsor of HB 280 and sees it as restoring a Second Amendment right to bear arms. “They were useful tools … like hoes, harrows and hedge clippers and anything else you might use to do something. I see a lot of people who tend to demonize them. I ask, have you ever shot a gun?”
Campus crimes cited
Georgia law requires anyone seeking a state permit to carry a concealed gun to be at least 21 years old. They must be fingerprinted and pass a background check.
These are, Ballinger says, the good guys — men and women who are responsible.
But she acknowledges so-called “reciprocity” agreements that Georgia has with other states recognizing their gun laws mean that students from places such as Missouri, where the minimum age for a concealed carry permit is 19, could also legally carry on campus in Georgia if the bill passes.
Critics have also raised questions about gun storage. Unlike states such as Texas, which included provisions allowing gun safes and lockers in university housing in its “campus carry” measure last year, Ballinger’s bill does not raise the issue.
State law currently allows weapons to only be locked in cars if the permit holder comes onto campus. Otherwise, she said, “the bill contemplates that most students over 21 are not going to be still living on campus.”
According to the University System of Georgia, the average age of undergraduates this past fall was 23. On some campuses such as Albany State University, nearly half of the students enrolled on campus live in student housing.
At Georgia State, which enrolls nearly 51,000 people overall, only about 10 percent live on campus. But the university, along with the 26,000-student Georgia Tech, are located in the core of Atlanta, where apartments are readily available nearby.
Advocates have cited crimes on those campuses, including robberies at Georgia Tech and inside Georgia State’s library, as reasons to allow guns on campus. The latest federal data show a drop-off in on-campus aggravated assaults at Georgia State between 2014 and 2015, for example, while robberies and burglaries increased during that same period.
At the same time, the University System has increased security, including hiring more campus police officers and paying for technology such as camera surveillance systems. Several students at both campuses said they had noticed.
“I know personally I would feel much less safe if students were allowed to carry guns,” said Paula Ruiz, a Georgia Tech freshman from Woodstock. “It would not increase the safety of students on campus at all. The Georgia Tech Police Department does a great job of keeping us all safe.”
The measure has not been popular with voters. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January found more than half of respondents — 54 percent — said they did not want state lawmakers to pursue the issue again this year.
That’s down, however, from three years ago, when an AJC poll asking voters a differently worded question (whether they opposed allowing guns on the state’s college campuses) showed more than two-thirds of them did.
At UGA, which has more than 36,000 students and thousands of professors and staff, opponents rallied against the bill last week.
“What kind of an education are you going to get if your faculty is living in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia?” asked Freda Scott Giles, who teaches at UGA. “Just the idea of having guns around creates an atmosphere of distrust. Being a faculty member, I have often had to work with students who had mental issues. You have to feel compassion, but it should not be an atmosphere where they might be easily able to get firearms.”
Push began in 2013
But some professors say they would feel safer under HB 280.
Georgia Southern University in Statesboro sits on a sprawling 900-acre campus with more than 20,000 students. Federal data show crime rates are low, and burglary appears to be the largest problem.
“If I had a pistol and there was an active shooter on campus, I would put myself at risk to protect my kids. No hesitation, no delay, no remorse,” Georgia Southern business professor Bill Norton said. “I would carry to protect other people.”
Georgia is a haven for hunters and gun collectors, and state officials have long issued protections for those individuals. But interest in gun-carrier freedoms has spiked in recent years in the wake of mass shootings at schools and other acts of terror using firearms.
In 2013, lawmakers proposed a bill to allow Georgians to carry weapons in bars, churches, parts of college campuses and into unsecured government buildings. A committee later voted to remove bars from the bill, require churches to decide whether to allow weapons and ban guns in courthouses, but it left the ability of students to carry weapons.
The measure, however, bogged down in a last-minute debate, stifling the bill that year but igniting a fire for fervent gun rights protectors who in the years since got most of those provisions passed — with the exception of guns on campus.
They’ve kept coming back to change that.
In a lengthy veto message last year, Deal acknowledged supporters’ justification for guns on campus under the Second Amendment, but he said it was “incorrect to conclude … certain restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms are unconstitutional.”
He quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a 2008 opinion that said no doubt should be cast on “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”
Deal then noted that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sat on the board of the University of Virginia in 1824 when student conduct rules were established to exclude weapons from the campus, something Deal said illustrated “great historical precedent” for keeping campuses gun-free.
Is a deal possible?
It’s not clear what if anything has changed. Deal has said he would be more amenable to the proposal if it excluded certain areas of campus such as child care centers. That provision was not in last year’s bill but was added this year.
Deal has also called for excluding campus discipline hearings and administrative and professor offices from the proposal, but lawmakers so far have not added those exclusions.
Supporters said they are taking the governor at his word that there is a path forward from last year’s veto, which they thought was done to appease uneasy college leaders and gun control advocates.
“That message was not written by a pro-Second Amendment person,” said Jerry Henry, the executive director of gun rights group Georgia Carry. “I think that was grabbed by some speechwriter.”
For its part, University System leaders have made clear their opinions.
“With respect to campus carry, we feel strongly current law strikes the right balance to provide security on our campuses,” University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley said in testimony before lawmakers. “We, therefore, respectfully oppose any change to current law.”