In March 2016, Georgia’s senators passed House Bill 859. If it is signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia will become the 10th state in the U.S. to allow concealed carry permit holders to possess handguns on publicly-funded college campuses.
To Deal’s credit, however, he has threatened to veto the bill until Georgia lawmakers address the thorny issues of on-campus child care centers and how to handle all of those troublesome dually-enrolled high school students. Alas, seeing as how Georgia is among the reddest states in the union and it is an election year, it seems like it is only a matter of time until the inevitable transpires.
Under the proposed law, licensed individuals 21 or older would have the ability to carry pistols and revolvers “in such a fashion that does not actively solicit the attention of others” on any state college property that isn’t used for athletics events or student housing (which, naturally, begs the question: where are permitted residential students going to leave their weapons if they aren’t allowed to keep them in their own dorms?)
Since the aggregate age of the Georgia college student hovers around 20, however, the new campus carry bill really doesn’t apply to most postsecondary public students. That begs the additional question as to who exactly the bill is supposed to – pardon the pun – target. Is it designed for college professors or other staffers with dreams of going all John McClane on the next Seung Hui Cho wannabe? Is it supposed to be some kind of upperclassmen privilege, like preferred parking or first dibs on registration? Is it supposed to incentivize nontraditional, adult learners to return to classes? Is the intent to make NRA dads feel more welcome during campus tours – who, irony of ironies, are verboten to lug heat into the very same state chambers where the new gun bill was proposed and passed?
When it comes to requirements for a carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) permit, Georgia is one of the laxest in the country. Pretty much all you have to do is waltz on down to your nearest probate court, pay the $75-or-so fee and wait 30 days for your background check to clear and you’re good to go for the next five years. The state does not require CCW licensees to undergo any special training before being allowed to carry in public, or even take an examination of any kind. In fact, Georgia’s regulations are so lenient, you can be issued a concealed weapons permit despite being declared legally blind.
As of 2014, an estimated 600,000 Georgians held CCW permits, which represents about 8 percent of the total adult state populace. The high percentage of concealed weapons licensees, however, hasn’t exactly translated to a safer public space. Georgia averaged 1,262 firearm-related homicides in 2013, the nation’s sixth-highest tally. Longitudinally, the state’s gun homicide rate increased 8 percent from 2003 to 2013; by comparison, the rate in the District of Columbia (which, interestingly saw most of its stringent firearm laws repealed during the same timeframe) fell by almost half.
The decision really can’t be called a kneejerk reaction to any recent mass shootings. To the best of my knowledge, the closest Georgia has gotten to a Sandy Hook/Virginia Tech ordeal was in 2013, when a 20-year-old convicted felon marched into a DeKalb County school with almost 500 rounds of ammunition – only to be talked out of a rampage by school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff. Sure, a day trader did slay a dozen people on the streets of Atlanta, but that was all the way back in 1999. Some legislators have cited a string of armed robberies at the Georgia State University library as a catalyst for the bill; seeing as how the exact same proposal floated up in the last legislative session, however, it’s probably safe to say Georgia’s lawmakers probably had some sort of other rationale for the whole campus carry shtick.
Call me cynical, but it seems to me the bill was passed merely to pander to the state’s gun-lovin’, dyed-Georgia-Bulldog-red-in-the-wool conservatives – i.e., the same kind of people who have lost the culture war against gay marriage, cannabis and Obamacare. It’s more of a symbolic gesture, I suppose, forcing all of them limp-wristed liberal academics and worrywart social justice warriors to sweat it out thinking the Trump supporter sitting beside them in geometry class might have a Colt .45 tucked in his underwear.
Unintentionally, however, Georgia lawmakers – sorry, but I have to do it – may have shot themselves in the foot with the new bill, opening themselves up to a whole host of potential lawsuits and other technicalities that could – potentially – render HB 859 toothless.
The most obvious infraction would come in the form of the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 – in particular, 29 USC 654, which stipulates that all employers – public or private – “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
By authorizing individuals to take concealed weapons into state classrooms, Bo Mitchell – one of the nation’s leading occupational safety consultants – said employers are assuming a tremendous amount of legal risk – even in circumstances in which the CCW licensee would be using his or her gun defensively. Throwing gunman-hunting po-po into the mix, he explains how colleges could be setting themselves up for absolute calamities:
“The gaping risk of employees killed by friendly fire is always present with the police, and now the employer has multiplied that risk by managing armed employees to shoot at people who the armed employee believes are a lethal threat, in the midst of a crowded, confined workplace,” he said. “If the armed employee kills or injures another employee, then the employer is the responsible party.”
Oh, and that liability also extends to any non-employees who would be injured or killed on campus in the case of a shooting – e.g., the students themselves.
Of course, that’s assuming that in the worst case scenario, the CCW licensee would even be effective at thwarting a hypothetical rampage killer. If the disastrous results of a recent Dallas-area simulation to see how well armed resistance would’ve worked in a Charlie Hebdo-like situation are any indication … well, it probably wouldn’t account for much.
Official federal data shines a light on just how unlikely the civilian CCW hero is; an FBI analysis covering 160 active shooter incidents from 2000 to 2013 lists just one multiple-victim shooting that was stopped by a private concealed-carry permit holder who was neither an off-duty police officer nor security guard. By comparison, nearly two dozen school shootings were stopped by unarmed principals, faculty and students over the same timeframe.
While the landmark Supreme Court cases Chicago v. McDonald and D.C. v. Heller grant citizens the basic – but not irrevocable – right to own handguns in their own homes for personal defense, the high court has yet to determine the absolute constitutionality of gun possession in the public sphere. Oddly enough, however, students lamenting having to share lecture halls with pistol-packin’ pupils could find another legal way out via, of all things, a 2003 Supreme Court ruling on the legality of cross burnings.
In the ironically titled Virginia v. Black, the elder council determined that while Virginia’s outright ban on cross burning was unconstitutional, such forms of symbolic expression CAN be outlawed pending they are explicitly intended to intimidate others. In the opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said states had the ability to put the kibosh on any form of nonverbal expression representing “true threats” – essentially, any form of intimidation likely to “inspire fear of bodily harm.”
Students and college employees – theoretically – could invoke the Virginia v. Black ruling to potentially bar CCW on their respective campuses. By citing concealed carry as a form of symbolic expression under the First Amendment, there’s an outside shot that such behavior could be construed as true threats – basically, unconstitutional “expression” intended to make people fear for their safety … which, in turn, piggybacks on the OSHA mandate from earlier.
Another way around the CCW ruling? Believe it or not, drug testing. Think I’m joking? Go back to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which – under 18 USC 922 – bars anyone who is “an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” from even touching a firearm, let alone carrying one around in public. Granted, getting students to submit to drug tests before they can carry weapons on campus is probably a constitutional issue in its own right, but it isn’t necessarily unfounded on the collegiate level. Case in point? For student-athletes to compete in NCAA-sanctioned events, they have to submit to screenings; thus, there is at least a precedent in place to make students eligible for preferential treatments undergo drug tests before being granted said privileges.
But ultimately, what might undo all of these campus carry laws is what isn’t included in the bill language.
In Georgia’s campus carry bill, for example, there is nothing prohibiting CCW licensees from having to register as concealed carriers before attending classes. Once again, there is very much precedence for this elsewhere; as a public safety measure, most incoming college freshman and transfer students have to provide proof of certain vaccinations or inoculations before they can set foot on campus. Suffice to say, I think it’s only fair that if certain individuals are allowed to carry guns into classrooms, their educators and fellow classmates should at least have knowledge of who they are and the potential public danger they represent before teaching them or having a class alongside them. And – out of respect for their safety – I feel that students and professors should have the ability to opt out of any scenario in which they would be forced to share a physical classroom space with them. Hell, if we’re going to let “trigger warnings” prevent students from discussing controversial issues with one another, we might as well give them literal “trigger warnings” when they are in class with people who could literally blow their heads off at any moment.
Furthermore, there is nothing on the Georgia law books preventing schools from doing their own character “screenings” before permitting CCW students and/or employees to bring weapons onto their campuses. Exactly how are we supposed to know that kid in the back with the .44 Mag isn’t some trigger-happy, George Zimmerman-type that’s going to open fire because he thinks the kid going to the pencil sharpener might be in ISIS or something? If we’re going to make work-study students sign forms stating they’ve never advocated the overthrow of the federal government before, then certainly it’s not too condescending to ask campus carriers to undergo at least one psychological exam before appointing them lethal protectors of the hallways.
But then again, maybe miffed students and teachers in states like Georgia don’t even have to go that far to overturn their contentious concealed carry laws. Looking at the official HB 859 text, I noticed something rather peculiar: while the bill states individuals are allowed to carry firearms onto public college campuses, the bill says absolutely nothing about permitting ammunition.
Thus, due to legislative oversight, colleges can continue to enforce a ban on bullets, which means each and every person in the state who brings a loaded concealed firearm into class is technically guilty of illegal transportation of an explosive on public property – a felony under state code O.C.G.A 16-7-82 (2010), which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
Granted, I’m not quite sure if similar laws exist in the other nine states where self-ordained vigilantes can bring theoretical mass murder instruments onto campus without fear of reprimand as long as nobody sees them poking out of their backpacks, but considering how gun-ho legislators of the like tend to be about these issues, odds are they probably left out those key details in their hastily drawn bills, as well.
Now, would any of these technicalities really keep weapons out of your state’s classrooms? Certainly, there are no guarantees, but considering the alternative?
Yeah, I’d say they’re all shots well worth taking.