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Georgia lawmakers drop ‘campus carry’ effort

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says the legislation is aimed at fortifying the Second Amendment right of Georgians to bear arms. (Special photo)

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says the legislation is aimed at fortifying the Second Amendment right of Georgians to bear arms. (Special photo)

By Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA (MCT) — House Republicans officially pulled the plug Friday on the concept of allowing qualified college students to carry firearms on campus, with leaders promising to file a bill Monday that would otherwise expand gun rights in Georgia.

The coming bill, as expected, will likely let churches allow parishioners to carry weapons, authorize school boards to give school administrators the ability to carry guns and establish a method of ensuring those deemed mentally ill don’t qualify for a license to carry.

“Our focus always (has) been on making sure Second Amendment rights are protected for private property,” Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said Friday. “This bill will strengthen the Second Amendment rights of Georgians.”

The Legislature’s own lawyers issued an opinion Thursday that declared unconstitutional a plan to allow public college and university presidents a say on whether guns would be allowed on their campuses. The “opt-in” idea had been crafted as a compromise between House Republicans who wanted campus carry and Senate Republicans who did not.

It also had support from Gov. Nathan Deal and was supposedly aimed at easing opposition from members of the state Board of Regents, which governs the powerful University System of Georgia; University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby, a former legislator who still holds sway with colleagues in the General Assembly; and Ron Jackson, the commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia.

Few expected any presidents to take the state up on the offer, but Huckaby said Friday that lawmakers had never even bothered to get his opinion.

“I was not asked,” said Huckaby, who otherwise declined to address the bill. “But all along I wondered whether that was a viable option, delegating that power to another body.”

Ralston said campus carry is now likely a moot issue this year. It “will probably be looked at in a separate measure,” the speaker said, adding he was doubtful it would be introduced this year.

One key lawmaker placed fault with the Senate. In no surprise, Senate leaders disagreed.

“We’ve already passed campus carry out of the House,” Public Safety Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said in an interview Friday. “It got held up in the Senate. That bill is still over there.”

The House last year passed a comprehensive gun bill that included universal campus carry for any student 21 or older who passes a background check and obtains a permit. The Senate balked at the idea, however, and the gun bill faltered in the final days of the 2013 session.

But senators had passed their own gun bill last year. On Friday, Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, cautioned that his chamber would not back down.

“The Senate has acted very strongly to protect our Second Amendment rights,” Shafer said. “The House leadership has asked us to delay action until they can prepare a new bill. So we’re waiting for the introduction of that legislation. We wouldn’t want to pass legislation that wouldn’t pass constitutional muster, particularly if we’re attempting to address several related areas in the bill.”

House leaders on Thursday said in light of the legislative counsel’s decision, they might reconsider a mandate that campus carry be legal at all public colleges. Given Ralston’s comments, that now appears not to be the case.

State lawmakers last expanded where Georgians with concealed-carry permits can take their guns in 2010. That expansion was a major victory for gun rights advocates, although subsequent court rulings excluded churches, colleges and schools from the concealed-carry law.

Today, guns can be carried into bars, but only with the permission of bar 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 they are barred from carrying them anywhere on campus.

Powell said the new bill, minus campus carry, should be filed Monday.

“We’ll pass another bill to enhance Second Amendment rights,” Powell said. “Hopefully the Senate will pass that.”

Democrats and other opponents of campus carry were pleased with the decision.

College students “deserve an atmosphere where they can be safe,” said House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus.

“There are so many things that can happen to college students — we don’t need to add an extra dimension of danger to their lives,” she said.

But Republicans say that’s precisely why campus carry should be allowed. Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, is one of a growing group of young conservatives who don’t want to give up on campus carry.

“My daughters aren’t old enough to be at a college or university yet,” Cooke said, “but, God willing, one day they will and I want them to be able to protect themselves.”

Cooke and fellow Carrollton Republican Rep. Dustin Hightower agreed they’ll continue to fight to keep campus carry in the bill.

But Cooke acknowledged that what he wants most is a bill to pass.

“I’m not going to sit here to say I’d want to throw out the good for the perfect,” he said. “There are a lot of key points in that bill that need to move forward.”