Unofficial Opinion U2018-1

January 11, 2018
To: 

Representative, District 122

Re: 

Notwithstanding whether a person has a license to carry a weapon, Georgia law separately prohibits individuals from carrying weapons into both faculty, staff and administrative offices, as well as any room on a school campus in which disciplinary proceedings are conducted.

You have requested my opinion regarding whether a person licensed to carry a weapon may do so when entering certain areas of a school campus.  It is my opinion that notwithstanding whether a person has a license to carry a weapon, Georgia law separately prohibits individuals from carrying weapons into both faculty, staff and administrative offices, as well as any room on a school campus in which disciplinary proceedings are conducted.

Georgia law generally provides that “it shall be unlawful for any person to carry to or to possess or have under such person’s control while within a school safety zone, at a school function, or on a bus or other transportation furnished by a school any weapon or explosive compound, other than fireworks or consumer fireworks.” O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(b)(1).  A “weapon” is very broadly defined, but includes firearms, certain knives and other items which could be used to strike, beat, bludgeon, or otherwise injure a person.  See O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(a)(4).[1]  A “school safety zone” includes any public or private elementary, secondary, technical, vocational school, college, university or any other “institution of postsecondary education.” O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(a)(3)(A) and (B).

There is a broad statutory exception to this prohibition, so that an individual with a weapons-carry license may carry a weapon “in any building or on real property owned by or leased to any public technical school, vocational school, college, or university, or other public institution of postsecondary education.”  O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(c)(20)(A).  However, there are also statutory limitations on this broad grant of authority which are defined under O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(c)(20)(A)(i) through (vii).

It is one of those statutory limitations which is at the heart of your opinion request.  The General Assembly, as a part of its 2017 amendments to this statute, included language limiting the authority to carry a weapon, providing that one could not be carried into, “faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted.” O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(c)(20)(A)(v); 2017 Ga. Laws 341, 341‑42 (Act No. 167, H.B. 280).  You have asked whether this language applies separately both to “faculty, staff, or administrative offices” and to “rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,” creating two different limitations on the statutory right to carry a weapon.  Alternatively, you have asked whether this language should be read as creating only a single exception, i.e., a person with a weapons-carry permit would still not be permitted to carry a weapon into faculty, staff, or administrative offices provided that disciplinary proceedings are being conducted in those locations.

Georgia law provides specific provisions for the interpretation of statutes. See, e.g., O.C.G.A. § 1‑3‑1.  The Supreme Court of Georgia has also held that:

Under our well established rules of statutory construction, we

presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant.  To that end, we must afford the statutory text its “plain and ordinary meaning,” we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.)  Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172-173 (751 SE2d 337) (2013).  We “look to the text of the provision in question and its context within the larger legal framework to discern the intent of the legislature in enacting it.”  Scott v. State, 299 Ga. 568, 571 (788 SE2d 468) (2016).  See also OCGA § 1‑3‑1 (a), (b).  Where the statutory text is “clear and unambiguous,” we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning ends. See Deal, 294 Ga. at 173.

DLT List, LLC v. M7VEN Supportive Hous. & Dev. Group, 301 Ga. 131, 134 (2017); see also 2006 Op. Att’y Gen. 2006‑4.[2]

Here, as your inquiry demonstrates, the scope of O.C.G.A. § 16‑11‑127.1(c)(20)(A)(v) is not clear on its face.  You have identified an ambiguity in the application of the statute.  Therefore, it appears proper to apply an interpretation of the statute based upon the rules of statutory construction outlined above and the words and construction of the statute itself.[3]  The question then becomes, in looking at the language of the statute itself, what does the phrase “where disciplinary proceedings are conducted” modify?  Does it modify the entire provision, so that weapons are prohibited only where disciplinary hearings are being conducted, or do the provisions of “faculty, staff, or administrative offices” stand separately, so that the modifying phrase only applies to “rooms where disciplinary hearings are conducted?”

In looking at questions such as this, the Supreme Court of Georgia has applied “the canon of statutory construction known as the ‘rule of the last antecedent.’” Scott v. State, 299 Ga. 568, 572-73 (2016), accord, Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 173-74 (2013); see also Lockhart v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 958, 962-63 (2016).  Essentially what this means is that a qualifying phrase in a statute “‘should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.’” Scott, 299 Ga. at 572, quoting Lockhart, 136 S. Ct. at 962.  “[T]his rule is not absolute, and the inference it raises may be rebutted where ‘the structure and internal logic of the statutory scheme’ so militate.” Id.  One way to demonstrate a more specific legislative intent is to include a “serial comma,” that is, use the punctuation so that the modifying phrase in a statute “can only be reasonably understood to modify that participial phrase and no others.”  Deal, 294 Ga. at 173, accord, Scott, 299 Ga. at 573.

Here, as noted above, the language of the statute is ambiguous.  Because of this, it is necessary, to interpret the meaning of the statute from the words and structure of the particular provision in question.  Following the guidance of the Georgia Supreme Court and applying the “rule of the last antecedent” here leads to the conclusion that the statutory limitation applies only to “rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,” but that same “disciplinary proceedings” phrase does not apply to the earlier identification of “faculty, staff, or administrative offices.”  While the overall language of the statute indicates an intent by the General Assembly to permit persons to carry weapons in buildings or on property owned by or leased by public postsecondary institutions, the statute does not clearly mandate the creation of an exception that would be confined only to locations where disciplinary proceedings are being conducted.[4]

Based on the foregoing, it is my opinion that notwithstanding whether a person has a license to carry a weapon, Georgia law prohibits individuals from carrying weapons into any faculty, staff, and administrative offices, and Georgia law separately prohibits individuals from carry weapons into any room on a school campus in which disciplinary proceedings are conducted.

Prepared by:

Dennis R. Dunn

Chief Deputy Attorney General

Tina M. Piper

Senior Assistant Attorney General

[1] “‘Weapon’ means and includes any pistol, revolver, or any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind, or any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, any other knife having a blade of two or more inches, straight-edge razor, razor blade, spring stick, knuckles, whether made from metal, thermoplastic, wood, or other similar material, blackjack, any bat, club, or other bludgeon-type weapon, or any flailing instrument consisting of two or more rigid parts connected in such a manner as to allow them to swing freely, which may be known as a nun chahka, nun chuck, nunchaku, shuriken, or fighting chain, or any disc, of whatever configuration, having at least two points or pointed blades which is designed to be thrown or propelled and which may be known as a throwing star or oriental dart, or any weapon of like kind, and any stun gun or taser as defined in subsection (a) of Code Section 16-11-106.  This paragraph excludes any of these instruments used for classroom work authorized by the teacher.”

[2] “The initial rule of statutory construction is to construe the law to implement the purpose and intention of the General Assembly in enacting the law.  The courts must ‘look diligently for the intention of the General Assembly, keeping in view at all times the old law, the evil, and the remedy.’  O.C.G.A. 1‑3‑1(a); see Thornton v. Clarke County Sch. Dist., 270 Ga. 633, 634 (1999); Wilson v. Bd. Of Regents, 246 Ga. 649, 650 (1980).  Statutes must be construed in relation to other statutes relating to the same subject matter and harmonized wherever possible.  Monticello, Ltd. v. City of Atlanta, 231 Ga. App. 382, 383-84 (1998).  The statutes should be construed to give a ‘sensible and intelligent effect to each part, as it is not presumed that the legislature intended that any part would be without meaning.’  Id.  Furthermore, a specific statute governs over a more general statute when the statutes are in conflict.  Glinton v. And R, Inc., 271 Ga. 864, 866-67 (1999); First National Bank of Atlanta v. Sinkler, 170 Ga. App. 668, 670 (1984).”

[3] It is generally recognized that the intentions of individual legislators regarding what a statute was intended to accomplish are not considered proper in an analysis of legislative intent.  “Judicial inquiry into legislative motives or purposes is a ‘hazardous matter,’ for what motivates one legislator to make a comment about a law is not necessarily what motivates fellow legislators to enact the law.”  Goldrush II v. City of Marietta et al., 267 Ga. 683, 692 (1997), citing United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 383 (1968); see also Bown v. Gwinnett Co. Sch. Distr., 895 F. Supp. 1564, 1575 (N.D. Ga. 1995), citing Palmer v. Thompson, 403 U.S. 217, 224 (1971).

[4] You note in your inquiry that the Board of Regents, which is the entity constitutionally empowered to manage and operate the University System (Ga. Const. Art. VIII, Sec. IV, Para. I (b)), has interpreted the statute as creating two separate limitations.  See Website of the University System of Georgia – May 24, 2017 Guidance on the Application of H.B. 280, https://www.usg.edu/assets/usg/docs/USG_HB_280_Guidance_%28003%29.pdf (Last visited January 4, 2018).