Campus police at the University of Georgia said they had seen no handguns and didn’t expect any trouble while keeping an eye on tailgaters at Myers Quad before Georgia plays Appalachian State on Saturday, September 2, 2017, in Athens. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Campus carry attracts opinions, but no problems as school opens

There is some consensus among supporters and critics about one aspect of Georgia’s new campus carry law.

Both sides say the provision that allows licensed weapon owners to carry guns at tailgating, but not inside athletic venues, needs changes. Those who oppose the law want want guns forbidden at tailgating. The pro-carry fans want the law to provide for a safer place to store guns on campus other than a glove compartment.

“I think mixing guns with alcohol is not a good thing, especially with students tailgating,” said Emma Moore, 22, a first-year University of Georgia graduate student from Gwinnett County, tailgating with friends on campus Saturday afternoon.

Dallin Larsen, a third-year UGA doctoral student, who is a licensed weapon holder said the rules are too cumbersome. Parking lots can be a long walk from tailgating areas. And the law didn’t make allowances for storing guns on campus. Cars, he said, are the only places where a gun could be stored before entering the stadium. So his plan is to tailgate at a friend’s house off-campus.

“A lot of people will decide to not carry to avoid the inconvenience of having to find a proper and secure place to store their firearm before going into the stadium,” said Larsen, 30.

This is the first school year under the new campus carry law. Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 280 into law in May, allowing licensed weapons holders to carry firearms on various portions of Georgia’s public colleges and universities. The law came after years of debate between proponents, who wanted gun owners to have a layer of personal safety, and opponents who are concerned about people not in law enforcement with a gun and the consequences if they misfire. The law does not apply to private institutions, such as Emory University or the Atlanta University Center’s campuses.

The law took effect in July and, so far, state officials say no one has been charged with carrying a gun in a prohibited area.

Those who advocated for the legislation say the early numbers showing no misdemeanor violations of the law show the fears about campus carry were overblown.

“It’s just one more place to carry,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of the gun rights group, Georgia Carry.

Those who were against the bill concede the law won’t be repealed, but they want changes, such as removing the tailgating provision.

“We’re not going to be able to repeal this bill…but we’re looking at how can we try to avoid the things we’re most afraid of,” said Mallory Jessica Harris, a University of Georgia student who actively tried to stop the campus carry legislation.

Larsen said fears of gun owners getting drunk and firing their weapons in a crowded area outside a football game are illogical. Gun owners won’t chance that to lose their license to carry.

“To risk losing that because I want to drink a couple more beers…I don’t want that risk,” he said.

Georgia is now one of at least 34 states to allow guns on public college campuses. Georgia’s law is in the middle of the pack as far as its permissiveness of where guns are allowed, said Andy Pelosi, executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, a New York-based group founded in 2008.

Pelosi wishes Georgia had set aside more time for its campuses to review the law and propose changes. Texas allows its institutions to declare some buildings gun-free for safety reasons.

For those carrying firearms on Georgia campuses, the rules about what to do with them can be tricky. You can carry them, but there’s few places where you can store them. Guns can’t be kept in dorms. Larsen has adjusted his schedule. On days Larsen carries his gun, he knows he can’t visit any of his professors. The law prohibits guns in faculty offices and select spots, such as in childcare facilities. “It’s a huge inconvenience,” Larsen said, for himself and for faculty who’d like to have their gun.

There was scant discussion about the new law at UGA on Saturday. No campus protests were visible. Fans, clad in their red and black, sat under tents around the Athens campus, grilling chicken wings, tossing bean bags, drinking beer and other alcohol from plastic red cups. Police patrolled the streets and quads on foot. No one interviewed said they had a weapon.

Jermeiko Bell, 34, who graduated from the university in 2006, was tailgating on Myers Quad with about two dozen friends. He and most of them were playing a drinking game before the football game. Bell doesn’t carry a gun, and said he wouldn’t if he were drinking alcohol.

“It’s not for me,” said Bell, sipping beer from a cup.

John Hotaling, who stood nearby enjoying a beer, thinks Georgia did the right thing by passing campus carry. Hotaling, 50, a retired police officer who worked in Albany, N.Y., said someone with a gun could save others in a dangerous situation.

“If somebody came in here and started shooting everyone, I would want to protect (everyone),” said Hotaling, who lives in Savannah.

Janki Patel, 17, a freshman UGA student from Atlanta, thinks the tailgating policy is dangerous, noting there were children among the tailgaters Saturday.

“There are a lot of young people around and everyone doesn’t know how to use (their guns),” she said. “It could be a really bad accident.”

Some parents said they would pull their children from college after Deal signed the bill. It’s unclear how many chose that route. Some University System of Georgia institutions, such as Georgia State, have reported record enrollment this academic semester.

Georgia Tech student Ja’Quan Taylor now carries his .45-caliber handgun on the Midtown Atlanta campus and friends who were worried about the law don’t notice he’s packing on campus.

“Hey, I told you,” Taylor said he’s told them. “It’s not going to bother you at all.”

For Taylor, it’s an extra layer of personal safety on a campus that has had its share of students being robbed, in some cases, by criminals with guns.

The National Rifle Association is also calling attention to the lack of problems or concerns by the public. It distributed an Augusta Chronicle article that reported just one person showed up to a recent Augusta University forum on the law, and that was the university’s director of student health. The university’s police chief, James C. Lyon, was quoted as saying he has not received a call from anyone concerned or alarmed by someone carrying a concealed weapon.

Critics are still convinced the law is dangerous. They point to incidents such as a Kennesaw State student robbed at gunpoint in July of his own gun and wallet at one of its residential complexes.

“Less than a month since campus carry passed in Georgia and a gun has been stolen on KSU’s campus…unreal,” one group, “Keep The G Gun Free,” posted on its Facebook page.

University System of Georgia officials have tried to stay out of the debate about the merits of the law, focusing on sharing information about it and how it works. At the suggestion of some student leaders, it created a video explaining campus carry.

Campus carry critics say they may pursue legislation next year to require signage explaining where a weapon can be carried. Some proponents said they may push for a law allowing firearms on portions of private campuses.

Henry said lawmakers may be reluctant to make any changes during next year’s legislative session after years of arduous debate on the topic.

“I think they may want to take a deep breath from all of it,” he said.

Here’s a primer on the “campus carry” law.

Q: Who gets to carry a weapon on campus?

A: Anyone with a Georgia weapons license. In Georgia, you must be 21 or older, be fingerprinted and pass a background check to obtain a license.

Q: Are there places on public campuses where are firearms prohibited?

A: Yes. They’re not allowed in athletic venues, student housing, fraternity and sorority houses, faculty academic offices, offices where disciplinary proceedings are held, spaces where classes are held for high school students including dual-enrollment programs as well as pre-school and childcare facilities.

Q: Does the firearm have to be exposed for anyone to see?

A: The weapon is supposed to be concealed, carried in a fashion that does not attract the attention of others.

Q: Who’s responsible for enforcing the law?

A: In most cases, it will be campus police.

Q: What are the penalties for violating the law?

A: You can be charged with a misdemeanor. It’s a felony for non-licensed gun owners to carry a firearm on campus.

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