Politics & Government

Campus carry bill set for vote in Georgia House Monday

The gold dome of the Georgia Capitol.
The gold dome of the Georgia Capitol. TELEGRAPH FILE PHOTO

ATLANTA -- Lawmakers who want to open parts of public college campuses to students with concealed handguns are getting a vote on their bill in the state House on Monday.

But they have already run into Democratic opposition -- and may meet more from Georgia's public colleges.

People who have a weapon carry license would be able to take their handguns onto parts of public college campuses, including libraries and classrooms, under House Bill 859 by state Rep. Rick Jaseperse, R-Jasper.

It would not apply to the typical young undergraduate because carry licenses are only for people ages 21 and older or those who have military experience.

Weapons would still be banned in dorms, fraternity or sorority houses and athletic events.

And it would require carriers to be a little discreet. The gun would have to be be substantially hidden under clothes or in a bag and not "actively solicit the attention of others," according to the bill text.

Bill supporters say campuses are soft targets where crooks can find vulnerable students.

"We're restoring those peoples' constitutional rights to defend themselves," Jasperse said at a hearing on the bill last week.

He said the bill does not fully restore students' Second Amendment rights, but that he is looking for enough common ground to move a bill.

"I have to ... attempt to garner enough support that I can pass this bill through the House and Senate," he said.

House Majority Leader David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is on board. In a written statement, Ralston said that the point is to discourage campus crime, such as two recent armed robberies at the Georgia State University campus library in Atlanta.

"This is particularly important to commuting and night students who may have to park and walk long distances to and from class," Ralston wrote.

Warner Robins Republican state Rep. Heath Clark started his legislative career last year by filing a broader gun bill that would allow licensed carry throughout campuses. He never got a hearing, but he thinks Jasperse's bill has much better prospects because it's hit some middle ground.

Clark said he's gotten a lot of e-mails criticizing the bill from both pro- and anti-carry correspondents.

When that happens, he said, "I think you know you've hit a good bill."

But Democrats raised questions in the bill's committee hearing.

State Rep. Keisha Waites of Atlanta said she agrees that campus crime is a problem, but she voted against the bill in committee.

"I agree we need to do something, but I believe that this is an extreme measure given the population that we are talking about," Waites said.

The Board of Regents, which runs Georgia's public universities and colleges, would not be drawn into a detailed discussion of the bill at that committee hearing. There, a board representative repeated the same short comment that came from university headquarters.

"We support current state law," Regents spokesman Charles Sutlive said in a written comment later.

Middle Georgia State University spokeswoman Sheron Smith said that her school, in line with the Board of Regents, supports existing law.

The bill would also apply to Georgia's technical college campuses. The Technical College System of Georgia did not respond to requests for comment.

If successful in the House, the bill would still need approval from the Senate before being put on the governor's desk.

Georgia's higher education leaders have opposed attempts in the past few years to get guns onto campuses.

Their colleagues in other states have done the same.

"Public colleges and university presidents are almost universally opposed to concealed carry on campus," said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, an organization that counts some 420 public schools and governing bodies nationwide as members.

He said public college presidents see the weapons as making campuses more dangerous, not safer.

They worry, he said, about guns getting lost, stolen, misused or even used to commit suicide.

Last year, Texas passed a law making it the eighth state to broadly open campuses to concealed weapons, though its schools have some discretion in setting their own rules.

The president of the University of Texas at Austin, Gregory Fenves, wrote in a public letter last week that his school will implement the policy though he thinks "the presence of handguns at an institution of higher learning is contrary to our mission of education and research, which is based on inquiry, free speech and debate."

Georgia is one of 19 states that ban campus concealed carry.

But in nearly half the states, the decision is left up to each individual school.

"I would say that in 99 percent of cases, campus governing boards would not allow concealed carry on campus," Harnisch said.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com