ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers will be reviving an effort to expand gun rights, but will be starting over with new legislation and weighing the possibility of giving college presidents and religious leaders the option of whether to allow guns on public campuses and in places of worship, according to interviews with key lawmakers.
Monday was the start of the legislative session and official business was mostly ceremonial and making preparations for the rest of the 40-day session. It's expected to be a quick session with lawmakers focused on the budget and eager to return home to begin campaigning for re-election this year.
One of the lingering questions from last session was what would happen to gun legislation, which had the support of gun rights groups but faced opposition from the Board of Regents. It failed to reach a final vote on the last day, after a conference committee was appointed to negotiate a deal between competing versions in the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Whip Cecil Staton, R-Macon, and Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, were both part of that committee and said Monday that no action would be taken on that conference committee bill. Instead, Meadows said he is working on new legislation that could be introduced as early as next week, with a focus on mental health issues.
"The intent is not so much campus carry," Meadows said. "Where we want to go with this bill is that we want to make it as hard as humanly possible for a person who is mentally ill to get a license."
While part of the legislation last year, the mental health provisions were overshadowed by the debate involving guns on campuses. Staton said one idea under consideration would allow public college presidents and religious leaders to decide whether to allow guns on their property, something House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle have indicated in interviews that they are open to considering.
"Rather than us imposing this on colleges and churches, if they chose to do so, that is fine," Staton said. "I'm sure there will be those who don't feel we will go far enough. Our job is to be concerned for all Georgians and not just a particular group."
Meadows, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee that sets the daily agenda, said he did not favor the idea but was willing to consider it. The fact that Ralston, the top Republican in the House, wasn't shutting the door on the idea could also be significant.
"That is one idea that we are looking at," Ralston said in an interview last week. "I'm not endorsing, I'm saying I am open to thinking about it and I have been thinking about it."
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said recently that he was open to the idea as well.
"I'm a huge supporter of the Second Amendment, but I do think that local control is very important in this process," Cagle said Sunday.
A spokesman for the University System of Georgia declined comment. A group representing 25 churches and other places of worship said in a statement that they "hope to find a moderate and responsible answer to reducing gun violence" without infringing on the Second Amendment.
Also working on the House legislation are Reps. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, and Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper. Powell said churches are private property and should have the ability to decide whether they would allow guns, but noted state colleges and universities are public. Jasperse signaled he had some concerns.
"I think the Legislature would be very reluctant to turn over their responsibility for Georgians' ability to protect themselves over to college presidents," Jasperse said Sunday.
One person who has yet to weigh in is Gov. Nathan Deal, who said he's waiting for legislators to put forward their plan.
"When you get to the real philosophy behind all of it, the question is whether government in any form or fashion has the right to make those judgment calls, or does the Constitution speak for itself," Deal said in an interview last week. "That is where the debate is."