As the last few minutes allotted to the 2013 Legislature drained away, a compromise on a gun bill was reached among five of six Republican lawmakers.
Over the objections of the Board of Regents, the measure would have allowed the carrying of concealed weapons on public university campuses — as long as younger permit holders obtained extra training in the use of firearms.
The fact that one lawmaker, state Sen. Cecil Staton of Macon, a former associate provost at Mercer University, refused to sign onto the deal reached by the House-Senate conference committee made no difference.
But Staton’s withdrawal a few minutes later mattered very much.
The compromise came so close to a midnight deadline that the Senate was required to waive its own rules in order to take it up. That required a two-thirds vote, and Republicans number exactly 38 in a 56-member Senate.
Without Staton’s support, the gun bill could go nowhere. And Staton had disappeared from the chamber. “I was busy,” a bespectacled Staton said this week. “So, yeah, I played a major role in stopping that bill last year.”
Bill Murray has nothing on the Georgia General Assembly. We are in high “Groundhog Day” mode, approaching the end of the 2014 session with another new House gun bill resting in the bosom of the Senate.
House Bill 875 would expand concealed weaponry to every city and county building in the state that is unprotected by armed security guards.
Concealed carry would be allowed in bars and churches. And it would be decriminalized on public university campuses. Violators would be subject to a fine no greater than $100 — less than a speeding ticket.
But 2014 isn’t a precise photocopy of 2013. For one thing, 2014 is an election year. With a Republican governor facing not just a primary, but a well-financed Democratic challenger.
Perhaps more important, four Senate Republicans have announced they will not be running for re-election: Majority Leader Ronnie Chance of Tyrone, Tim Golden of Valdosta, John Crosby of Tifton – and Cecil Staton.
Three of the departing senators haven’t publicly indicated where they are on HB 875. But Staton has no qualms.
He collects guns. He considers himself a Second Amendment enthusiast. “But I also have a son in college. And the campus-carry thing, frankly, just made no sense to me,” Staton said. “And I don’t think it makes much sense to most Georgians — Republicans or Democrats. Especially mothers. They don’t want to think of their kids walking across the campus in Athens and seeing students with guns on their hips.”
HB 875 is another example, Staton said, of Republicans being pushed ever further to the right. “The difficulty for my party going forward is the influence of some of these groups. It doesn’t matter what your lifetime commitment may have been — it’s what you did on this amendment,” he said. “You make enemies out of 80 percent, 90 percent friends. We’re so good at doing that as Republicans.”
In addition to his background as a Mercer official, there are two more things you need to know about Staton. One is that he is the Senate majority whip, in charge of counting votes for his ruling GOP caucus.
Secondly, Staton is a graduate of the Southern Baptist seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
During a House committee hearing, a representative of the Georgia Baptist Convention said his denomination, with 3,600 churches and 1.3 million members, endorsed HB 875 and its language to allow concealed weapons in houses of worship — unless the local congregation or other administrative unit should declare otherwise.
But Staton spoke of quiet disagreement from many congregations that he’s heard from.
“I’m very concerned personally about any provision that requires houses of worship to opt out. I think that is bad public policy,” Staton said. “I can’t imagine why Republicans would want to require every house of worship to hold some kind of meeting — to essentially have a church conference where people have to vote.”
In other words, HB 875 would force a summer of debate among thousands of congregations in Georgia — with exceptions for other forms of denominational governance — over whether to allow firearms in their midst.
So where are we headed? Let us make two assumptions. First, that Gov. Nathan Deal would rather not shoulder the blame for a primary-season eruption of arguments in Georgia pews — regardless of an official green light from the state’s largest and most influential denomination.
Then put yourself in the shoes of a Democratic producer of TV spots, with access to millions of dollars pouring into Georgia to spur supporters of U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter, now certain to be Deal’s November opponent.
Should campus carry be decriminalized in Georgia, on Deal’s signature, your job would to be to make the University of Georgia campus the most frightening place a registered female voter — preferably a mother with high school-age kids — could imagine.
HB 875 is certain to undergo a hefty rewrite. Keep an eye on state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton. He’s the governor’s floor leader. If Bethel assumes Senate sponsorship of the bill, you can assume that the governor has entered the negotiations.
Senators will try to find a path that avoids a repeat of last year’s tense House-Senate negotiations. But if there is another conference committee, Staton says he stands ready.
“I’ve certainly made it known that I’m willing to serve in that role," he said. "I’m not running for re-election.”