Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has less than a week to make a decision on whether to sign or veto a bill to allow guns on public college campuses. The campus carry measure is opposed by school and police leaders, as well as many students and staff. But a handful of students say it’s their right to carry firearms and they’re part of a growing, national movement.
The Collegiate Leadership Conference at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta last weekend was not a big gathering. A panel of student activists describing how to organize for gun rights on campus drew about 30 people, including Florida State University student Shayna Lopez-Rivas.
“I am actively fighting for campus carry in Florida,” said Lopez-Rivas, who said she was raped by a stranger at school. Later, a friend introduced her to shooting.
“She took me to the gun range and I shot a gun for the first time, and I was like ‘Wow. I could have used this,’ ” Lopez-Rivas said. Carrying a gun makes her feel safe, and she said abiding by Florida law that makes her disarm when she’s at school can be painful.
The idea that firearms can help to stop sexual assault is emotionally potent. While the topic is notoriously complicated to study, researchers have found data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showing little evidence that guns reduce sexual or other crimes.
Still, claims of crime reduction are a popular argument for gun rights advocates. They point to the research of gun rights advocate John Lott, although his methodology has been criticized.
Andy Pelosi of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, a national non-profit, counters that crime rates are lower on campus than off-campus. His group has found little measurable impact on school crime data in states that have passed campus carry laws.
Utah was the first state to allow guns in colleges in 2007. Pelosi said that following the Virginia Tech shootings that killed more than 30 people later that year, campus carry legislation began to pick up momentum.
“This year, we’ve seen bills in 17 states. Last year, we saw a comparable number, 17 or 18,” said Pelosi.
In Atlanta, Georgia Tech student Ja’Quan Taylor has been organizing pro-gun voices to lobby the governor.
“A lot of us aren’t trying to get our hopes up too much, but we’ve been talking to him. We’ve been on him a lot harder this time,” said Taylor, with a handgun holstered on his hip.
He said even if Deal vetoes the measure as he did last year, he’ll keep promoting firearms culture at school. He heads the campus marksmanship club and counts 400 Georgia Tech students, alumni and staff as members of the institute's Students for Concealed Carry on Campus group.
That's something Glen Caroline of the NRA’s lobbying arm said is gaining increasing support.
“Sort of a more focused effort to specifically have students speaking on behalf of NRA issues and educating students on gun rights on their campuses," Caroline said.
As head of the NRA’s grassroots division, Caroline has been speaking at schools for decades, but he said young activists like Taylor, reaching out to their own generation, are key to the NRA's growth.
“There is some low-hanging fruit out there, but unless we go out and try to harvest that fruit, we’re never going to get access to it," Caroline told the collegiate panel audience. "And it isn’t going to be me or the staff that works at NRA headquarters that does it. It’s going to be you.”
The focus on expanding its ranks has taken on special importance for the NRA in a time when the specter of a Democratic presidency has faded.
At the convention’s leadership forum last weekend, speakers reveled in the role the NRA played in securing Donald Trump’s victory. The group supported his presidential bid with more than $30 million in funding.
“You should be proud, because this organization made the difference and saved the soul of America,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, told a crowd of 10,000 Friday before Trump took the stage.
“But the fight is far from over. All you have to do is turn on the TV to understand that we didn’t win the media with this election," he said. "We still don’t control Hollywood, and Michael Bloomberg is still short, rich and angry.”
NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre decried the potential loss of a new millennial generation.
“The radical left in this country have hijacked too many of our schools and colleges, and now they’re trying to hijack our youth,” said LaPierre.
Enter Antonia Oakafor, a young, black campus carry activist the NRA asked to address the same audience that had come to see Trump.
“I’m proud that I bring a different voice and face to the NRA, and to defending our freedom,” Oakafor told them. A former Emory University student, she said she voted for Barack Obama twice, before undergoing a political shift.
“I now know I was wrong,” Oakafor said to cheers. She became a leading voice in Texas’ campus carry battle, and founded EmPOWERed, a nonprofit advocacy group for campus carry laws nationally. On stage, she encouraged Deal to sign the Georgia bill.
On Saturday, while trading strategies with fellow panelists on how to stay patient and stand up to anti-gun professors, Oakafor quoted conservative activist Morton Blackwell: “He says ‘students are not majority liberal, they’re majority apathetic.’ They don’t usually care about politics, so whoever gets to them first is going to win that battlefield.”
Oakafor is planning a national speaking tour of colleges this fall.