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How Athens Helped Kill the Campus Carry Bill

Laura Solomon and Jenny Gropp had been spending so much time on Twitter lately, it’s a wonder their thumbs hadn’t fallen off.

Along with University of Georgia English professor Magdalena Zurawski, the Georgia Review circulation manager and managing editor had spent weeks urging critics of House Bill 859 to email or tweet them photos of themselves holding signs expressing their displeasure with the “campus carry” bill, which would have allowed concealed-carry license holders to bring firearms anywhere at UGA except residences and sporting events, including into classrooms, offices and even daycares. Perhaps counterintuitively for writers, they reasoned that putting faces to the criticism would be more effective than words alone.

All in all, they estimate they received about 500 photos—including messages of support from celebrities like actor Tituss Burgess and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, creating national buzz for the cause. They tweeted all of them at Gov. Nathan Deal and other state officials while simultaneously dealing with blowback on the notoriously hot-headed social media network. And it worked—Deal vetoed the bill May 3. But Solomon and Gropp’s work wasn’t done yet.

“We actually sat down on Broad Street with phones and started retweeting” messages of thanks to Deal for vetoing the bill, Gropp said in an interview two days after the veto.

“I feel like I’m relaxing for the first time right now,” Solomon added. “I feel relieved now, but I realize it’s not going to stop.”

For many who opposed the bill, Deal’s veto came as a pleasant surprise. Athens is often referred to as a blue island in a red sea, and people here can feel powerless to fight a Republican-dominated state government.

“I am glad he trusted the people who it will actually affect, faculty at UGA and others in the University System of Georgia,” said Kristin Kundert, a drama professor. “I am very, very excited he listened to the voice of his constituents and not people spending money to push it forward like the NRA.”

Others echoed Kundert’s sentiments.

“It was good to see that he is putting the interests of student safety ahead of the lobbyists,” said senior Emma Krass, who organized a march against the bill.

“I am very pleasantly surprised,” said another senior, Lainey Saunders, who wrote an open letter to Deal. “I think it’s awesome that he listened to all the people who spoke out against it.”

The bill was highly unpopular—78 percent of Georgians opposed campus carry in a 2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll—and nowhere more so than at UGA, where it drew opposition from President Jere Morehead, campus police, the Student Government Association and several faculty and staff groups. In fact, Chancellor Hank Huckaby and the presidents of all 29 public colleges and universities in the state opposed the bill.

And the opposition didn’t just come from a bunch of loony liberals in the socialist utopia of Athens. “We’ve heard from so many people who have guns, who are pro-Second Amendment rights, who think this is a ludicrous policy,” Gropp said.

Unlike 2014, when legislators removed campus carry from a sweeping gun-rights bill, this time it passed overwhelmingly and almost entirely along party lines. What Solomon saw as a blatant disregard for the will of the people disturbed her. “I’m very concerned that a legislature can run rampant over its constituents and push through anything they want,” she said.

All four Republicans representing Athens—Reps. Chuck Williams and Regina Quick and Sens. Bill Cowsert and Frank Ginn—voted in favor of it. (However, Cowsert’s daughter Caty publicly opposed it.) Of the Athens delegation, only Democratic Rep. Spencer Frye voted against it.

“Depending on the campus and what’s going on on it, any time you have a gun-free zone, it’s not really a gun-free zone because the criminals doing these shootings have guns,” Ginn said.

Quick issued a written statement in response to Flagpole’s request for comment: “I am disappointed in the Governor’s veto given the serious extent of campus security breaches all across Georgia. To restrict an individual’s right to self-defense under existing circumstances is reckless and irresponsible—especially in light of the fact that highly paid administrators, the University Chancellor and the Board of Regents regularly invoke the shield of sovereign immunity against those seeking redress from injuries resulting from collective bad decisions.”

While there were several high-profile armed robberies at Georgia Tech and Georgia State in the past year, UGA is probably one of the safest places in the state. On a campus with nearly 50,000 people, only 61 violent crimes were reported to UGA police last year. The murder rate on college campuses is 0.1 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 4.4;  and 93 percent of violent crimes involving college students happen off-campus, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study.

HB 859’s opponents fretted that introducing guns would actually make campus less safe—that alcohol, a contentious classroom debate or a bad grade could set off a gun-carrying student. And while the bill restricted the right to carry a gun on campus to ostensibly law-abiding permit holders age 21 and up, in practice that provision was unenforceable, since state law prohibits police from asking people with guns whether they have a permit.

There’s no way to tell how much the vocal opposition factored into Deal’s veto, but the governor certainly agreed with the logic. “If the intent of HB 859 is to increase the safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result,” he wrote in a lengthy statement explaining his veto.

Deal laid out the historical precedence for banning guns at colleges, dating back to Founding Fathers James Madison and Thomas Jefferson prohibiting guns at the University of Virginia in 1824, up through conservative Justice Antonin Scalia’s Heller opinion that banning guns in “sensitive places such as schools and government buildings” is constitutional.

It’s highly unlikely Deal’s veto will be the last word. “This was a bill that I think is very important. It’s fully vetted and debated in the committee process. It was passed by both chambers overwhelmingly,” House Speaker David Ralston told the AJC. “This fight will go on. The exact form it takes, it’s early to say right now.”

But if and when the bill comes back, Solomon, Gropp and Zurawski’s Poetry Action Network will be ready. The group linked up with activists at other Georgia colleges and even in other states where similar campus-carry bills are under consideration. “We can connect if it comes up again,” Gropp said. “The influence is lasting.”

Evelyn Andrews contributed reporting.