Georgia 'campus carry' gun bill sparks backlash from fearful students and faculty
Man carrying a gun (Shutterstock)

CS Thachenkary had been a business professor for 33 years at Georgia State University and headed up several faculty senate committees. But this year, a bill he predicted would pass hastened his decision to retire.

“I met with my dean back in September and gave him advance notice,” he said. “I told him: ‘This gun bill is going to raise its ugly head – and I don’t want to be among the first casualties.’”

The bill to allow guns on college campuses did pass, and now awaits the signature or veto of Georgia governor Nathan Deal.

HB 859 , similar to a bill recently passed in Texas that spurred professors there to leave, would allow students 21 and over to carry concealed weapons on campus with a permit, except in student housing, sororities and fraternities and at athletic events. If Deal signs it, Georgia will become the ninth state with such a law.

Faculty activity opposing the bill has been brisk. In addition to Thachenkary’s early retirement, about 800 faculty at schools across the state have joined a Facebook group against HB 859; a Georgia Tech professor has taken to the pages of the Atlantic magazine to voice his opposition; and police arrested a philosophy professor from Kennesaw State University while protesting.

The student newspaper at the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA) ran a recent editorial summarizing the concerns of most students about the bill, noting that 62% of students answering a poll opposed the measure. A Georgia Tech survey showed that 70% of students shared the same opinion. Daniel Funke, author of the UGA editorial and editor-in-chief at the Red & Black newspaper, said: “It’s strange to me to see Governor Deal ponder a law that affects 300,000 students and doesn’t take into account what we feel.”

Funke said he had his reporters do a story this week on students who supported the bill “in the interest of balance”. Finding students to interview, his reporters told him afterward, was difficult.

Hank Huckaby, the University of Georgia system’s chancellor, has also stood firm against the bill, as has Jere Morehead, president of UGA, one of the state’s flagship schools.

Funke, a junior, drew attention to Huckaby’s opposition in his column: “When the chancellor … himself speaks out against something, you sit down and listen.”

“But that’s not what our representatives are doing,” he continued. “Passing legislation that affects students, professors and administrators without their support is not only politically stupid – it’s morally reprehensible.”

Deal has until 3 May to sign the bill, and he has wavered in his position.

Spokespeople for Deal and Huckaby declined to comment on issues surrounding the legislation. A staffer for Huckaby drew attention to remarks he had made before the bill passed the state senate 11 March, in which the chancellor noted that campus police also oppose the measure, as it would make their job “extremely challenging”.

For Deal, the political stakes include possible pushback from conservatives if he vetoes the bill that may only be harsher after the governor’s recent veto of “religious freedom” legislation.

“This legislation could be important to this governor if he runs for office again,” said Catherine Mortensen, spokeswoman for the NRA , noting that the organization has given Deal an A rating in the past but might lower it if he vetoes the bill. The NRA has sent out email alerts to its Georgia members to “urge Governor Deal to sign the bill”, she said, although she wouldn’t specify how many members there are in the state.

On the other side of the issue, Georgians saw ads on TV earlier this week funded by Everytown for Gun Safety , which put $25,000 into the campaign opposing guns on campus.

Deal recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that 2014 legislation expanding where Georgians could legally carry firearms drew “predictions that we were going to open our state up to a wild west scenario”. That hasn’t happened, he said – “therefore to use those kind of arguments with the campus carry discussion, I think, lacks validity”.

But then, in the last days of the legislative session, Deal found problems with the bill, asking legislators to exempt campus childcare centers, faculty or administrative offices and disciplinary meetings and other hearings from “campus carry”, and expressing concern about high school students who take college courses.

Thachenkary, now retired, said he and many of his colleagues at Georgia State were concerned about some of the same settings, and felt that allowing guns on campus would be a “combustible combination”. He said colleagues on the faculty senate had “widespread concern about the merits” of campus carry legislation for several years, as it had been introduced and failed before.

Funke, the UGA student, said “it’s already scary being on a college campus … If there were guns on campus, I would feel less safe, not more”.

In his piece for the Atlantic, Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost noted that college students are beset by multiple anxieties, including the rising cost of a degree, uncertainty about the degree’s value and, yes, random violence. “The entire college experience,” Bogost writes, “along with the supposedly prosperous young adulthood into which college spills out, is imploding under the weight of unprecedented apprehension.”

In this context, Bogost said, guns may provide some sense of security, or control. “But to feel like we need guns … is just a symptom of a disease we’re not attending to,” he said.

If campus carry becomes law in Georgia, Thachenkary has heard concerns from his former colleagues about the potential chilling effect of guns on aspects of professors’ work, including assigning grades and expressing opinions.

“I think my colleagues will be somewhat more guarded,” he said. Historically, he said, tenure “gives you the freedom to speak freely” as a faculty member. Now, a professor may be mindful of upsetting a student who is in possession of a firearm. In that case, he wonders, “does the presence of guns become the counterforce to the academic freedoms guaranteed by tenure?” © Guardian News and Media 2016