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Protesters call for campus carry veto
Speakers visit to Statesboro attracts demonstration
Stepping away from about 50local citizens who showed up to protest the "campus carry" bill (H.B. 859) during a gathering of local Republican Party members at Sugar Magnolia Bakery and Cafe on Thursday, Tom Brown, center right, engages in a lively and respectful debate with Georgia Southern students Chase Davis, center left, Bill Hopes, far left, and David Griffin, who support the bill. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

A campaign event Thursday afternoon for Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, Georgia House majority leader, drew House Speaker David Ralston to Sugar Magnolia Bakery and Café, and also drew protesters outside opposed to a pending state law that would allow handguns on college campuses.

Protesters, some but not all with connections to Georgia Southern University, chanted "No guns on campus!" and held handmade signs calling for Gov. Nathan Deal to veto "campus carry." About 50 protesters were in the parking lot one hour into the 2 p.m. event, about the same number of people who crowded into the little bakery shop to hear from Burns and Ralston.

House Bill 859, passed by a 113-59 vote in the House and 37-17 in the Senate, allows handgun permit holders, who must be age 21 or over, to carry guns on public college and university campuses, with limitations. Guns would still be prohibited in buildings used for athletic events and in campus housing, including sorority and fraternity houses. Guns would have to be concealed, not carried openly.

"I would like to know why in this universe they think it would be a good idea to have carry on campus. It makes no sense," said Laura Campbell, one of the protesters.

A Statesboro resident and retired public school teacher, Campbell is not a Georgia Southern University employee or student. But she often visits campus, has many friends who work there, and worries for their safety, she said.

"With a day care on campus run by the university, having guns on campus is also a concern for mothers," said Larissa Pires, who was holding her 9-month-old son and has two other children.

Burns explains support

Asked about the protesters, Burns said he heard that Deal was going to be in this part of Georgia and suggested that, because they were seeking a veto, they might try to find to the governor.

"But from our perspective, it was a bill that was well thought out and it went through the process, and we believe that it is very respectful of our university system and the concerns that we have as citizens about safety in the university system," Burns said.

Lawmakers thought that people who have been subjected to background checks, are 21 years old and older, and have obtained a permit should be allowed to carry guns in designated places on campus, Burns said. Campus police and security forces do "a fine job," he said, but he indicated that part of the motivation for the law was for students to be able to defend themselves.

"You know, the bad guys have guns, but we also believe that it's time for folks who have been properly background-checked to have the right to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights," Burns said. "We know there have been numerous incidents where law-abiding citizens who happen to be college students have been victimized by robbery and other types of assault. ... We just believe it's fairness that we extend the 2nd Amendment protections to law-abiding citizens."

But Pires, who previously taught as a temporary professor at Georgia Southern, where her husband is a faculty member now, recalled facing some classes with 200 students in them.

"You'd feel very unsafe being up there knowing that half of these kids could have guns," she said, outside among the protesters. "You fear for accidents. I'm not sure that they're responsible enough to have guns. It's just a matter of the right people handling this at the right time on campus, with everything that goes on with kids on campus, debate, it's not the right place."

The state's Move on When Ready program, which allows high school students to dual enroll and earn college credits at state expense, adds to the worries, said GSU faculty member Jessica Orvis.

"That is only a year or so old and there are a record number s of high school students taking advantage of that opportunity to start college classes and these students are younger, and I'm concerned about guns around a lot of our high school students as well," she said.

Democrat gun owner

These protesters were not asked about their party affiliation, but some of the organizers were Democrats. In an emailed statement, 12th Congressional District Democratic Party Chair Bill Herring, a Bulloch County resident, said he had never attended a protest before, let alone tried to lead one.

"However, I feel that if a shooting incident were to happen on a Georgia campus I would regret passing up on this one opportunity to let it be known how some people in Statesboro feel about this bill," Herring said. "And if Governor Deal had not already vetoed one bill, I might again feel this is a useless effort."

He was referring to the Republican governor's veto of the "religious liberty" bill, House Bill 757.

Identifying himself as a gun owner, Herring said he has "a shotgun for hunting quail and a rifle for killing varmints" at his farm, but thinks that letting students bring guns on campus is asking for trouble, because he believes that "anger" shootings with a gun at hand occur more often than planned shootings, and doubts that younger students will leave guns at home when 21-year-olds are bringing theirs.

Ralston won't predict

Interviewed inside Sugar Magnolia, Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, wouldn't protect whether Deal will sign or veto the bill. That choice, Ralston said, is the governor's prerogative. Deal has until May 3 to veto it.

"I'm not going to make a prediction as to what he's going to do. He hasn't shared that with me," Ralston said. "I thought we passed a really good bill. It went through a really thorough process in both the House and the Senate and was approved by large margins in each chamber."

He called it "a very responsible bill" that includes protections consistent with Georgia's laws on gun ownership and possession, and said he is happy with it.

"So my hope is that he will sign it into law, because I think it's important, that a basic constitutional protection, that you don't have to give that up at the edge of a college campus," Ralston said.

Besides Burns, the other members of the Legislature whose districts include Bulloch County residents - Rep. Jan Tankersley, Rep. Butch Parrish and Sen. Jack Hill - are all Republicans and voted for the campus carry bill. All attended Thursday's gathering with Ralston.

The purpose of Ralston's visit, Burns said, was to show support for Burns, who has opposition in the Republican primary.

"Jon is one of the great leaders in the House," Ralston said. "He had a great first session as majority leader, and I wanted to come down here and tell people that they're fortunate to have someone that his credibility and his effectiveness and the way he's respected."

Burns' challenger in the Republican primary, Daniel Almond, is also an advocate of campus carry. Tankersley faces a Democratic challenger in the November general election, James "Major" Woodall, who opposes the campus carry legislation. Woodall both attended the protest and visited the gathering inside.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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