Students, faculty, staff and local residents hold a protest against campus carry legislation at the University of Georgia Arch on Tuesday, March 21, 2017, in Athens. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Professors ask court to overturn Georgia’s campus carry law

Six veteran Georgia professors are seeking an injunction to stop the state’s new law that allows licensed permit holders to carry concealed guns on certain areas of public college campuses, saying it’s dangerous to students and faculty and unconstitutional.

The professors hope to overturn the controversial guidelines using a legal argument that the “campus carry” law usurps the University System of Georgia’s constitutional authority over its campuses. Their complaint was filed Monday in Fulton County Superior Court against Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Attorney Georgia Chris Carr.

The professors, who’ve been teaching at various University System of Georgia (USG) campuses between 16 and 40 years, believe guns in the classroom stifle discussion on contentious issues, will lead to more student suicides and could create a safety hazard if a firearm is accidentally discharged in areas with hazardous materials.

University of Georgia geography professor John Knox, who is described in the complaint as a gun owner, said guns on campus “make the learning environment less safe for everyone and negatively impact his educational mission.” Valdosta State professor Michael Noll fears “armed intimidation or gun violence from students who receive failing grades.” Noll has posted a “no weapons” sign on his faculty office door, according to the complaint. Aristotelis Santas, a Valdosta State professor, said he “will no longer promote discussion of hot-button issues in his classroom” and allows students to leave his class if they don’t feel safe.

USG officials initially did not respond to requests for comment, but later released a statement noting it’s not a party of the litigation and it is abiding by the law’s guidelines.

Deal signed House Bill 280 in May, a year after vetoing similar legislation that the governor felt didn’t adequately address some of his prior concerns about firearms on campus. The legislation, which became law in July, does not allow guns in dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses and on-campus areas where high school students attend class. Guns are not allowed in buildings used for athletic events, but they’re permitted in tailgating areas.

The law has been long sought by conservatives and gun rights activists as a safety measure for students, faculty and administrators.

Nine states allow concealed weapons on public postsecondary campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-four other states allow concealed carry weapons on campus but give each college or university the option to permit anyone to have a firearm.

State Rep. Mandi Ballinger, the bill’s lead sponsor, said she couldn’t comment on the complaint because she has not read it yet. Ballinger, a Republican from Cherokee County, did say via email Tuesday that “history would bear out that their concerns are unfounded.”

State officials have not reported any incidents where a gun owner has fired a weapon on any campus. The law does not apply to private colleges and universities in Georgia.

The professors are using Deal’s veto statement and remarks by a key state official to support their case. The complaint includes comments by USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley to a state legislative committee earlier this year. Before the campus carry law was passed, Wrigley said the “current law strikes the right balance to create a safe environment on our campuses.”

Several organizations that were against the law released statements Tuesday praising the professors for seeking the injunction.