The Legislature’s failure last month to loosen firearms restrictions in Georgia has revealed a rift among powerful gun groups and lawmakers, putting the issue squarely in Gov. Nathan Deal’s hands ahead of next year’s re-election bid.
It will be a tricky negotiation, hinging on whether to allow concealed weapons on the more than 50 campuses of the state’s universities and technical colleges.
If Deal bridges the divide and restrictions are eased, it would burnish Georgia’s reputation as one of the friendliest states to gun owners. Other likely provisions in the legislation include letting churches allow guns in sanctuaries, letting school boards arm school administrators and letting military veterans younger than 21 carry weapons.
But the negotiation will also be fraught with political pitfalls, including intense push-back by the state’s powerful Board of Regents and other higher education leaders. Still, Deal is mindful that being painted as an obstructionist among gun supporters could earn him new enemies at a politically precarious moment.
“We do think that over this next recess period that there will be an opportunity to bring the different points of view together in a more orderly fashion than the last few days of the session allowed,” Deal told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview. “And perhaps some middle ground can be found.”
The gun legislation is one of the most intense battlegrounds for emboldened Republican lawmakers. Gun-rights advocates were eager this year to use their majority in the General Assembly to enable gun owners to carry them in more places — even as other states tightened restrictions after mass shootings such as December’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
In the final days of the session, two competing visions emerged.
The National Rifle Association backed a state Senate plan that sought to appease higher education leaders, who worried that more guns on campus would pose a danger during frenzied tailgating parties and passionate classroom debates.
The 7,300-member Georgia Carry gun advocacy group, however, wanted more sweeping rules pushed by state House members that permitted “campus carry.”
“When you look at it, there were so many good things that were beneficial for those like myself who are pro-2nd Amendment,” said Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, original sponsor of what became the Gold Dome’s signature gun bill: Senate Bill 101. “What I tried to tell them was, ‘let’s pass the rest of the bill and take (the campus carry provision) on at a different time.”
But the Regents are not elected officials accountable at the polls, said House Public Safety and Homeland Security Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who was among those leading the gun push in his chamber. “The Legislature is elected to do legislative acts.”
Deal didn’t take a public stance on the issue, although he cautioned in early March that “we don’t want to overreact.” His aides, meanwhile, sent lawmakers research showing that only a handful of other states allow guns on campuses.
“It was our feeling all along there was pressure from the governor’s office to stop the bill,” said Jerry Henry, Georgia Carry’s executive director. “We were sorely disappointed with the performance of some of our elected officials. I hope they can redeem themselves next year.”
In 2010, state lawmakers expanded where Georgians with concealed-carry permits could take their guns. That was a major victory for gun rights advocates, although subsequent court rulings have excluded churches, colleges and schools from the concealed-carry law.
Guns can be carried into bars, but only with the permission of the bars’ owners. The state’s concealed-carry law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from carrying a gun. College students may store weapons in locked cars on campus, but that’s it.
“One of the things for me is, if a student walks into a classroom with a sidearm on their hip, is that a distraction or conducive to learning?” Ginn said. “My daughter’s not that far from going to college. How would I feel?”
The Board of Regents will also be under different leadership next year, with chairman Dink NeSmith’s term expiring at the end of the year. The likely successor is Philip Wilheit Sr., a close Deal ally. For now, the powerful organization is pushing to keep a seat at the table during the negotiations.
“We all share a common goal: to ensure the safety of our students,” said spokesman John Millsaps. “We look forward to working with the governor toward this goal.”
The gun measures also pose a tricky political calculus for Deal as he prepares a re-election run. He has support from both the NRA and Georgia Carry, and alienating either of those groups could give him headaches in his bid for a second term. At the same time, though, support from the NRA may no longer provide ample political cover as more strident gun rights groups push for broader changes.
“It throws a curveball to Republicans because all of the sudden just being supported by the NRA isn’t enough. They have to think about Republican primaries,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “And Deal must try to make sure he maintains his support for the Republican base in the state without coming off as too extreme, which could alienate swing voters.”
Striking a compromise won’t be easy, but lawmakers have a place to start: A revised version of the bill that hit their desks less than an hour before the session came to a frantic end March 28. It would allow licensed students between ages 21 and 25 to carry concealed weapons on parts of the campus if they complete an eight-hour gun-safety program.
Henry said his group was initially against such as mandate but went along with it because student members said “they would be more than willing to take the training if that’s what it takes to protect themselves.” Georgia Gun Owners, another gun group, opposes any sort of mandatory training.
“Finding the middle ground is going to be difficult but I think it’s possible to do so. That’s what we’ve asked people to do — come to the table in the spirit of good will and attempt to understand the concerns that each side is expressing,” Deal said. “Hopefully, if there is to be legislation, it will be crafted in a way that we have taken all of the concerns into account.”