HB 859, known as the Campus Carry Bill, is perhaps the most polarizing piece of legislation proposed in the state General Assembly this year.
The bill allows licensed gun owners in Georgia to carry concealed firearms on public college and university campuses. To obtain a license in Georgia, an individual must be at least 21 years of age and pass a background check. The bill excludes concealed carriers from several excepted areas of campus, including sporting events and residences.
HB 859 has sparked numerous student protests here at UGA, and campus administrators nearly universally oppose the bill. On March 2nd, President Morehead issued an official statement against the legislation with a university-wide email. He supported the testimony of University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby: “We feel strongly that the current law strikes the right balance…The bottom line — we oppose this legislation.”
Few voices on campus have publicly articulated support for HB 859. This silence is partially because those who oppose the bill raise objections which reflect genuine and compelling concerns about gun culture, academic freedom, and what it takes to preserve a safe and civil society.
Yet the issue of campus carrying is of primary importance — not only for university students, faculty, and staff, but for citizens across the state. According to the Crime Prevention Research Center, Georgia has over 600,000 licensed gun owners. Though licensed, the current law does not permit them to carry their firearms on college campuses across the state.
These conscientious gun owners are not our first concern, however. Instead, we should be troubled by our current lack of defense against shooters who work outside the law to bring guns to campus without a permit, in many cases with malicious intent.
Over the past few months, both opponents and supporters of the bill have raised legitimate arguments. HB 859 has pitted the General Assembly against the university system Board of Regents and gun owners against campus activists. It has raised questions about our constitutional guarantees versus bystander safety.
As a University of Georgia student I unwaveringly support our constitutional rights as American citizens. The Second Amendment states that the ability for civilians to bear firearms is one of those rights. HB 859 does not violate Americans’ rights but instead removes status quo legislation which currently inhibits us from exercising them freely.
In support of HB 859, I here consider several arguments which have been raised against the bill. These are not intended to be comprehensive discussions but rather snapshots of several common stances held by myself and fellow supporters of the bill. They demonstrate that a diversity of opinions about HB 859 exists within the University of Georgia campus community.
“Guns inhibit academic freedom.”
Many professors and students believe that having individuals carry firearms in class keeps them from expressing thoughts freely: They fear the consequences of expressing an opinion which is disagreeable to a gun owner. For example, the Red and Black reports one student’s statement: “Thankfully, [disagreements] have all been with words, rather than fists or weapons — but the conceal carry law could change that.”
HB 859 mandates that campus carrying be concealed, in part to assuage this concern: “[Exceptions to carry prohibitions] only apply to the carrying of handguns which are concealed.”
In other words, if you cannot immediately see that there are gun owners in the room, you cannot confirm that there are weapons present at all. The classroom thus remains a safe and civil space.
Furthermore, the same document which protects academic freedom of speech in the First Amendment secures the right to bear arms in the Second. It is a common theory of constitutional interpretation that weakening one provision of the Constitution degrades the entire document: Abridging our right to bear arms would have deleterious effects on our right to free speech, in the classroom or elsewhere.
“Having more guns at play in campus shooting situations makes it difficult for police to determine who the real shooter is.”
This statement expresses a well-founded apprehension. If police officers are called to adjudicate a situation in which there are two individuals pointing weapons at each other, ascertaining which is the real threat and which the licensed safety presents a challenge.
When police arrive at the scene and ask both parties to set down their firearms, there are three possible outcomes for the campus shooter and the campus carrier. First, police may make the demand and both gunners comply. Police can then use evidence from cameras, eyewitness accounts, and the crime scene to determine who the campus shooter is. Second, police may make the demand and one of the two complies. The individual who set down the firearm is no longer a threat, and police can address the other person. Third, police may order them to put down their guns and neither complies. This is the most dangerous situation of the three possibilities. Police must then address both parties as real threats to students and proceed to diffuse the situation accordingly.
Yet we may safely assume that those who went to the trouble of obtaining a gun license and who carry on campus legally are law-abiding citizens. In fact, research on gun carriers in Texas has found that concealed carry holders are 5.7 times less likely to be arrested for violent crimes and 13.5 times less likely to be arrested for nonviolent crimes than the general public. Legal campus carriers should not be feared. They will likely be the first to obey the orders of first responders like police and may provide immediate and necessary aid in subduing criminals.
“In Georgia, you don’t need training to get your gun license, making campus carriers untrained and dangerous.”
This argument assumes that individuals who complete all the requirements to get a license and a firearm and never train on their own. Many people seeking to obtain a gun license practice on their own, either at gun ranges or on private property. It also ignores all licensed police officers, military personnel, and civilians who receive formal firearm training. According to the National Institute of Justice, these individuals with formal training comprise 56 percent of all gun owners.
Those who respond to concerns about inexperienced carriers must concede, however, that firearm training is fundamental to accurate marksmanship and effectively responding to an active shooter. The prediction that some campus carriers may forego formal training brings up a legitimate concern about HB 859.
“Mixing guns and alcohol is a dangerous combination.”
This statement is absolutely true, which is why HB 60, the Guns Everywhere Bill from our 2015 legislative session, gave bars and restaurants agency to determine whether to allow guns in their businesses.
The combination of alcohol and firearms is a concern for off-campus carrying, however, not on-campus. Fortunately, alcohol is not for sale on campus at the University of Georgia. Further, HB 859 strictly prohibits firearms in other areas where alcohol could be consumed, like graduate student residences, Greek houses, and dormitories. Under the bill, firearms are still prohibited at sporting events. This prevents inebriated sports fans from bringing their guns into football stadiums.
Every student places priority on her own safety, especially in an intensive academic environment like the University of Georgia. Yet legal firearm possession on campus creates a safer campus — one which can respond more effectively to aberrant threats of violence.
Ultimately, Governor Deal will decide in the next few weeks whether or not to extend constitutional protections for bearing firearms to college campuses. HB 859 is a step forward for Georgia citizens and university students: It restores these protections where the current law denies them.
—Brennan Mancil is a junior studying political science and international affairs. He is a guest contributor to THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.