Gov. Nathan Deal wants substantive changes to a measure that would allow college students to carry concealed guns onto campuses, suggesting Monday that he might veto the controversial proposal if lawmakers don't take a second crack at it.
The governor's office said in a statement Monday that he wants lawmakers to consider exempting on-campus child care centers from legislation that would legalize firearms at all public colleges in Georgia and address his concerns about high school students who are joint-enrolled in college courses on campuses that allow firearms.
He also said that universities and technical colleges should have discretion to set their own rules regarding whether to allow firearms at disciplinary hearings and faculty and administrative offices.
"Addressing these issues is an important step in ensuring the safety and freedoms of students, faculty and staff in our institutions of higher learning throughout our state," said the statement from Deal's office, which didn't use the word "veto" but implied it nonetheless.
Here's where it gets a bit complicated: House Bill 859 has already been approved by both legislative chambers - it got final passage on Friday - and was sent to Deal's desk. Yet lawmakers could still approve new changes to firearms rules in separate legislation winding its way through the Legislature.
If that's the case, then Deal would first sign the original "campus carry" legislation and then the second measure that includes the changes he wants. The second measure would take precedence over the first.
As other red-meat measures, such as religious liberty bills, get softened amid an outcry from opponents, conservatives and Second Amendment activists have raised the volume on their support for the campus carry legislation. They pit it as a crucial safety measure for students, faculty and staff, and point to high-profile recent crimes on Georgia campuses as reason for the gun rights expansion.
The measure's critics say that allowing more firearms on campus will only increase the likelihood of violent shootings, and they warn that some students lack the emotional maturity to carry weapons on campus. The University System of Georgia and many leaders of colleges, including the presidents of the University of Georgia and Georgia State University, warn that it could make campuses more dangerous.
The legislation approved by lawmakers last week would allow anyone 21 or older with a weapons license to carry a gun anywhere on a public college or university campus, except for inside four places: dormitories, fraternities and sorority houses, and at athletic events. Everywhere else, including campus child care centers, music concert venues and classrooms, would be open under the bill.
Georgia would become the ninth state in the nation to allow a form of "campus carry" legislation if the measure is signed into law. About two dozen other states allow individual colleges to decide the rules.
Some of the measure's strongest advocates questioned why the governor would want to make the changes. John Monroe of GeorgiaCarry.org, the gun rights group, said there's no need to exempt day care centers from the campus carry legislation.
"People carry guns in parks, in restaurants, in shopping malls, in day cares, and even in k-12 schools every day," Monroe said. "People seem to lose sight of of the last two, where day cares are not off-limits and k-12 schools are not off-limits to people with permits who are picking up or dropping off students."
House Speaker David Ralston, a supporter of the measure, said that the bill's sponsors have "thoughtfully" vetted any concerns.
"I certainly take any concerns Governor Deal raises seriously, but now that the bill is on his desk and with only four days remaining in the legislative session, time is of the essence," said Ralston in a statement. "I am sure his team will forward specific recommendations to allow adequate time for consideration."
Critics of the measure welcomed the governor's warning.
"We really appreciate the governor's comments and his support, and we appreciate the opportunity he and other state leaders have afforded us for our concerns to be heard in this discussion," said Charles Sutlive, a spokesman for the University System of Georgia.
The governor has wrestled with legislation that would lift the weapons ban on college campuses for years. He was against a similar measure in 2014 -- he said then that he was worried about firearms "in college areas where alcohol is being consumed" -- but he has toned down his opposition this year.
In an interview last month, the governor said fears that campus carry would lead to a "Wild West scenario" were overblown. But days later, he said he hoped lawmakers could find room to compromise after Hank Huckaby, the head of Georgia's higher education system, and several high-profile university leaders raised questions.
One of the strongest critiques came from Georgia State University President Mark Becker, who wrote an open letter to faculty and staff outlining his problems with the legislation.
“I am deeply concerned that if this bill becomes law our campus will become less safe, not more safe as intended by the authors of the bill,” Becker wrote in the letter.
Here's the full statement from the governor's office:
“As a lifetime defender and staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights, Gov. Deal has signed every pro-gun bill to reach his desk. However, he believes legitimate points have been made in regards to certain aspects of the ‘campus carry’ bill and he calls on the General Assembly to address these concerns in related legislation before Sine Die. Specifically, these areas of concern include dually enrolled k-12 students who leave school to attend classes at a university or technical college campus, as well as daycare centers on these same campuses."
Insider note: Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Janel Davis contributed to this article.