guns on campus

UGA Hairy Dawg Carrying on CampusAccording to recent reports, members of the Georgia General Assembly are scrambling to respond to Governor Deal’s reservations about HB 859, the “campus carry” bill, now on his desk. The bill permits students at least 21 years old with concealed weapons permits to possess firearms anywhere on the state’s public college campuses except residence halls, fraternities, sororities, and athletic events.

It’s no wonder legislators are confused. A couple of weeks ago, Governor Deal airily dismissed arguments against the legislation as “lacking validity.” In recent days, however, he’s become persuaded that the bill has to be substantially revised in this session’s waning days. It’s dawned on him that it may not be a great idea to have armed students walking around among the three-year-olds in campus day care centers and packing heat at fraught disciplinary proceedings where students can face penalties up to and including expulsion. He also now believes that colleges and technical schools ought to have discretion to make their own rules about firearms in faculty and administrative offices.

Arguments of high principle have been advanced on both sides of this issue, proponents wrapping themselves in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and opponents raising the specter of a body blow to the free flow of ideas as faculty and students take to editing themselves for fear of provoking an armed student on a short fuse.

Those arguments are certainly worth our attention. But they go on at too high a level of abstraction to move things forward much. I think, foolishly perhaps, that it’s more productive to focus on less exalted issues of implementation, its costs and who would bear them. Doing that makes clear to me anyway how thoughtlessly this bill was cobbled together.

GeorgiaCarry, from its podium in an alternative universe, thinks it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money for colleges to spend more for added security if this bill becomes law. Colleges aren’t spending anything now “to keep criminals off the campus,” allows Jerry Henry of GeorgiaCarry. And since the presence of armed students would make campuses safer, it would be unnecessary to burden the taxpayers or anybody else to buy that benefit. This will come as welcome news to the University of Georgia, which ponied up over $5 million in 2015 for its campus police department.

A reality-based understanding of implementation costs has to start with the argument in the legislature for allowing only students with concealed carry permits to possess weapons on campus. Concealed carry permits are issued only to people who’ve passed criminal and mental background checks and been fingerprinted, demonstrating that they’re “responsible adults.

But here’s the thing. Since the bill allows concealed weapons in most but not all areas of the campuses, how’s anybody going to know that they’re not present in the restricted locations? It seems that there are only two possibilities.

One is to implement the provisions of HB 859 under an honor system, in which colleges just count on the “responsible adults” with concealed carry permits to leave them behind when entering the restricted areas. But I can’t imagine why the state would expect colleges to rely on an honor system when that’s certainly not what we count on in other settings, such as airports, many government buildings, and elementary and secondary schools where there are boundaries between areas where firearms are permitted and areas where they’re not. Even “responsible adults” have to pass through manned security checkpoints to get into the gun-free areas. We don’t rely on the honor system in those instances because everybody understands that doing that would essentially erase the boundaries between the restricted and unrestricted areas.

Maybe you can, but I can’t think of any alternative to an honor system making a dead letter of the bill’s distinction between unrestricted and restricted areas other than manned security checkpoints at all the entries and exits into and out of the gun-free zones. Let’s go the whole nine yards here and suppose that Governor Deal gets the additional restrictions he wants. So in addition to dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and athletic events guns are also prohibited in day care centers, disciplinary proceedings and, at the discretion of the colleges, faculty and administrative offices.

Now imagine yourself the administrator at a campus, which is a smallish city like the University of Georgia, responsible for implementing the law. Setting up the checkpoints would be a nightmare.

Day care centers, residences, disciplinary proceedings and athletic events might be manageable if expensive. But what do you do about buildings that house both faculty offices and classrooms where the former may be gun-free zones but the latter not? You can’t secure the entire building because you’d be barring concealed carry permit holders from taking their Glocks to class. So would you have to collect faculty offices behind a security checkpoint? That would mean major modifications and associated costs for buildings where classrooms and offices aren’t already segregated that way.

In my former life on a college faculty, faculty offices typically weren’t segregated in that fashion, and that was by design to encourage spontaneous interactions where students just follow professors back to their offices to continue conversations that began in just concluded classes. But a student armed in class wouldn’t be able to continue the conversation in the professor’s office without making an appointment to come back unarmed to get through the security barrier.

And this could get even crazier. If faculty and administrative offices are to be gun-free zones but aren’t conveniently collected in secure areas, does the college set up a checkpoint at each faculty and administrative office?

So here’s the position that HB 859 puts our colleges in. They can rely on an honor system that makes a mockery out of the bill’s limits on where firearms may be carried on campus. Or they can spend who knows how much money installing the hardware and adding the personnel needed to make those limits real, passing the costs on to either the taxpayers or to students in the form of higher fees.

Perhaps what’s worse, if the General Assembly heeds Governor Deal’s call to further limit  firearms on campus, the heaviest cost of taking the limits seriously would be to transform our campuses from welcoming places in which students, faculty, staff and visitors move about freely to forbidding places bristling with security checkpoints obstructing free passage at every turn. If that’s what the college experience is to be reduced to, I thank the fates that I knew it in better times.

 

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Image: Hairy Dawg Carrying on Campus is a composite image created by LikeTheDew.com from a promotional photo of Hairy Dawg from UGA.edu and a piece of a promotional gun photo from airsoftgitv.com.

Leon Galis

I'm an Athens, GA, native and have been living in Athens since 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008 I've written approximately 80 columns for the Athens Banner Herald and a handful for Flagpole Magazine in Athens.