Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law last week that will allow persons 21 years or older to possess concealed weapons on campus with a permit. As for what that means when universities host football games is unknown at the present time.
In the law, one of the excluded places for concealed weapons includes “buildings or property used for athletic sporting events.”
But those eight words, written in line 26 of House Bill 280, could be interpreted in different ways.
One scenario has raised an interesting question for Georgia: Given the fact that up to 100,000 fans, if not more, partake in tailgating festivities many hours before kickoff, how will the law be interpreted on its campus for a Saturday football game?
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Georgia’s athletics department is unclear whether this law will strictly mean that guns are disallowed inside venues such as Sanford Stadium or if they will be banned from all tailgating sites. The University System of Georgia and attorneys likely are still sorting out the best way to enact the new law.
Athletics director Greg McGarity was reached twice during the past five days since the signing of the law and said he isn’t sure of the details yet. The University System of Georgia Regents declined further comment on the topic.
Two of HB 280’s sponsors, Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton) and Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper), did not respond to requests to comment. Deal’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for clarification on the language either.
An opponent of the law, Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), said the phrasing is “100 percent unclear” and that it could wind up in litigation not too long after it goes into effect July 1.
“They use the term ‘athletic sporting events’ and ‘property used for athletic sporting events,’” Holcomb said. “One could definitely say, ‘Where people park is property used for athletic sporting events.’ Someone else could argue, ‘No, it’s just where the sporting event itself takes place.’ It’s not well constructed at all. It’s really poorly drafted.”
Georgia is the 11th state to sign a campus carry law, joining Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
Hypothetically, if Georgia’s law ends up interpreted to mean that all property on campus is used for an athletics event, which would prevent concealed carry on football game days, the General Assembly could review it in the next legislative session. Proponents of the law, Holcomb said, likely would prefer for permit holders to carry as long as they are not inside the sporting event venue.
In this scenario, a re-write would almost be certain. But Macon attorney Chance Hardy believes the law, as presently written, offers a strong case for concealed carry at tailgates.
Hardy’s reasoning is that the bill’s distinction between buildings and property defines the space of a particular venue.
“For a football game at UGA, the property would mean inside Sanford Stadium,” Hardy said. “For a basketball game, the building would mean Stegeman Coliseum. Otherwise, there would be no need to distinguish between a building or property.”
Still, Hardy pointed out that the language remains “ambiguous,” which could lead to some issues in enforcement until those guidelines are clearly outlined.
During her March 3 speech in support of HB 280 on Crossover Day, Ballinger confronted concerns by stating no major incidents have occurred on the 150 college campuses that have allowed people to concealed carry in the past 20 years.
Ballinger cited only three accidental firearm discharges with no substantial injuries reported.
“It is a proven fact that concealed carry weapons holders are the most law abiding citizens of this state,” Ballinger said. “They are fingerprinted and have a criminal background check done prior to being issued their permit.”
When it comes to a pregame activity like tailgating, however, the addition of alcohol has the law’s opposition concerned. During his Crossover Day speech, Rep. Bob Trammell (D-Luthersville) said it was obvious why athletics venues were excluded as a place where people could carry a firearm.
“It’s a terrible idea to have guns in a confined space with crowds of capacities up to 93,000 people,” Trammell said. “It’s a terrible idea to introduce guns into spaces like that where people have been drinking corn whiskey since 5 a.m. waiting on a football game. Everybody knows that. That’s not a controversial proposition.”
Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), one of the six HB 280 sponsors, later said in a speech that Trammell was exaggerating his claim while stating a joke.
“Not everybody starts drinking corn liquor at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to the ballgame,” Powell said. “A lot of us quit doing that when we were in college. And then a lot of us learned there was something better than corn liquor, and it was called bonded whiskey.
“But the sensationalism of the discussion is quite disturbing to me.”
Holcomb expressed concern about the potential of combining guns, even through legal possession, and alcohol.
Several studies have taken a look at the role alcohol plays in firearm-related crime, including a 2015 examination by Garen J. Wintemute of California-Davis. Wintemute went as far to write that those who carry guns in public have been linked to a higher rate of alcohol misuse and criminality.
But Wintemute did note it was difficult to distinguish between those who lawfully carry and those who do so illegally.
“Restricting access to firearms by persons who misuse alcohol would likely prevent violence, if restrictions were well-designed and enforced,” Wintemute wrote. “States enacting such restrictions would be acting in accord with a large body of empirical evidence.”
When it comes to guns and alcohol in Georgia, weapons license holders are free to carry into a bar as long as the establishment allows it. Therefore, Holcomb doesn’t think HB 280’s top sponsors would mind the combination at a campus tailgate.
“They think it is a very smart policy choice to mix guns and alcohol,” Holcomb said. “That is the stated position of both the governor and leadership in the Georgia General Assembly.”
University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley, in a statement released after the law was signed, said his office will begin releasing guidelines on how to approach the new law as the July 1 effective date nears.
And it probably won’t be until then that each of the state universities, including one in Athens with a highly-followed football team and a history of overindulgent alcohol consumption, will figure out how the law should be interpreted and implemented this fall.
“We’ll see what ultimately happens in how this is applied,” Holcomb said. “It is just one of probably many examples of where this law is going to be found to have been poorly drafted.”