Deal walked delicate political line on failed firearms legislation

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ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal never publicly criticized legislation that would have allowed students to carry firearms onto Georgia’s college campuses, but e-mails show his office worked quietly with opponents to make their concerns known.

Correspondence obtained by The Associated Press shows the Republican had given a key lawmaker research about the law that was developed by its opponents in the university system. His chief of staff also made it clear in a meeting that Deal was not personally backing the proposal. It failed last month on the final day of the legislative session.

Deal won endorsements from the National Rifle Asso­ciation and GeorgiaCarry.org in his 2010 race for governor. Even now, he won’t say whether he supports allowing college students to go armed.

Gun politics became complicated this year when the gun owners group GeorgiaCarry.Org backed legislation that would have allowed students with a license to carry a firearm to take their weapons onto campuses. The NRA did not press for those changes, which openly challenged the state’s powerful university system.

GOP lawmakers in the Senate, along with several Democrats, backed an NRA plan to make less-sweeping changes to Georgia’s gun laws.

As state lawmakers headed toward the close of their session, university system officials sent research, including a spreadsheet, to Deal’s office showing that very few states effectively allow firearms on campus, according to e-mails obtained under Georgia’s open records law. On March 14, university system Chancellor Hank Huck­aby e-mailed Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley.

“Chris, I would appreciate your advice on when and if we share the spreadsheet with House sponsors of HB 512,” Huckaby said.

Riley told Huck­aby that Deal shared the research with Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, one of the highest-ranking lawmakers to support allowing guns on campus.

Later in the e-mail exchange, Riley noted that one of Deal’s floor leaders in the Senate, Sen. Charlie Bethel, planned to advocate for the firearms legislation backed by House lawmakers.

Riley said he had met with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate.

The involvement of one of Deal’s floor leaders created a political problem. Confusion was possible since Deal appoints floor leaders to steer his legislative program in the Legislature. If one of Deal’s floor leaders publicly backed the bill, people could interpret it as a sign that Deal supported it, too. Robinson, Deal’s spokesman, said Riley told the lieutenant governor the bill was not part of the deal administration’s agenda and that Bethel backed it for his own reasons.

“If I’m carrying it as floor leader, it comes with a sort of imprimatur from the governor’s office that this is what the governor wants,” Bethel said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Deal’s office was getting phone calls about the plan, mostly from people upset over language in the legislation potentially restricting people with serious mental health or substance abuse problems from getting a license to carry a weapon. Deal had said he would support tightening background checks to identify people who could a pose a danger.

“We’ve had over 300 folks call in over the past couple days upset about the mental health amendment, and now they’re wanting to know the Governor’s stance,” Benjamin Smith, Deal’s director of constituent services, wrote in an email to a policy staffer. “Apparently folks are stating that their legislators told them the Governor is in favor.”

The legislation ultimately failed. A negotiating team of House and Senate lawmakers reached a compromise shortly before midnight on the final day of the General Assembly’s annual session. It never received a vote, though it could be revisited next year.

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