Nearly five years ago, a disturbed English major at Virginia Tech killed 32 of his fellow classmates and wounded a score more.
The campus massacre occurred at the height of that year’s session of the Georgia Legislature. A bill to rewrite the state’s gun laws — and overturn bans on where firearms could and could not be carried — was stopped in its tracks.
But every yin has its yang. The recent spate of robberies and assaults on or near the Georgia Tech campus near downtown Atlanta is about to unleash an equal and opposite reaction — a furious debate over the place of guns in public spaces long declared gunpowder-free.
Including, and perhaps especially, in college dormitories and classrooms.
Representatives of the National Rifle Association were in town and stopped at the state Capitol last week. They informed lawmakers that the gun rights group would make a major lobbying effort in Atlanta over the next two months.
A laundry list of targets includes the continued state ban on permitted, concealed weapons in houses of worship. The NRA also wants to strengthen recently passed legislation that stakes out non-secured areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as legitimate zones for concealed-carry.
Passage of a law to permit hunters to use silencers would be welcomed as icing on a large cake. Enthusiasts say the silencers — which would still require a federal license — would be a boon to neighbors of shootists. Silencers would also allow hunters to get off more than one shot when stalking herds of deer or feral pigs.
But it is the Board of Regents’ ironclad ban on firearms in dorms and campus buildings — long thought out of reach by gun rights activists — that will be the NRA’s primary object this year.
The Georgia Tech crime spree has the state’s top leaders rethinking regent policy. But let us be clear: Crime around Atlanta colleges isn’t something new. A Spelman College sophomore was killed in 2009 by a stray bullet. But the Atlanta University complex isn’t famous for the size or activity of its college Republican clubs. Georgia Tech is.
Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston, in the opening days of the Legislature, made no commitments, but both said events require a more open-minded approach to the issue of guns on campus.
Carrying the ball in the House will be state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, chairman of the Non-Civil Judiciary Committee. Golick said he intends to make sure something gets to the chamber floor for a vote.
“For me, the debate boils down to this — given that the university system simply cannot guarantee the safety of all students at all times, why should a 21-year-old, properly permitted student have less of a right to protect himself or herself in the event of a threat to their personal safety?” Golick said. “If a properly permitted female student has a baby and is pushing a stroller on campus, are we seriously going to deny her the ability to defend herself and her child in the event she is attacked?”
University officials might offer up different images. Perhaps one of gunplay during a drunken dormitory party. Or an army of befuddled campus cops, rushing to a Virginia Tech-like scene and trying to sort the armed bad guys from the armed good ones.
They might offer those pictures — but they don’t. The university system’s position is precarious, and so its officials prefer to wait for the legislation to show itself before they enter the public phase of argument.
Are there possible areas for compromise? Sure. Critics say that a gun ban on campuses is an advertisement that turns college students into easy prey. One suggestion heard this week would be to double or triple the penalties for crimes committed in firearm-free zones.
Another possibility would be the creation of a multitiered system of concealed weapons permits. Currently, permits are available to nearly anyone over 21 without a criminal record.
But another level of permit could require training in the handling of firearms — something more likely to be recognized by other states, which is important to those who carry across state lines.
Those with the permit requiring training might be allowed to pack on campus. Those without training might not not be.
Golick, whose House committee is likely to set the tenor for the debate, said he is maintaining an open mind when it comes to such proposals.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider