Texas House committee hearing focuses on guns at colleges

Posted Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- During 26 years as a professor at the University of North Texas, Tom Sovik says, he has repeatedly encountered threats from students.

One, he said, smashed electronic equipment in his classroom. Another threatened to come to his home and confront him over a failing grade.

The music history professor was among dozens of witnesses who packed a House committee hearing Thursday on legislation to allow concealed-handgun licensees to carry weapons inside college buildings.

Sovik said he wants lawmakers to pass a campus carry bill to give him more protection. And several lawmakers spelled out their determination to deliver.

"Today, we only allow criminals to carry handguns on campus," said Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, author of one of the bills. "This needs to change."

The hours-long hearing produced compelling firsthand accounts of two of America's deadliest mass shootings.

And it exposed sharp divisions over whether, amid a string of mass shootings, lawmakers should approve a proposal they previously rejected.

Testimony stretched into the evening as lawmakers dealt with a lengthy agenda of gun issues, including legislation allowing residents to openly carry firearms and authorizing school districts to authorize armed "school marshals" to protect students.

"The only place I think I would ever be shot is in my classroom," Sovik told reporters after the hearing. "It's more than just me. I'm responsible for all those kids."

Mental health concerns

On the other side of the debate was Claire Wilson James, who still has vivid memories of the sunny August day in 1966 when sniper Charles Whitman fired at her from the tower at the University of Texas at Austin.

James was an 18-year-old freshman, eight months pregnant, when she and her boyfriend walked onto the south mall of the campus.

Whitman's bullet tore through her left side, killing her unborn baby, who became the first fatality in the nation's first campus killing spree.

Her boyfriend was also killed.

"I lay there for 90 minutes until someone was able to come and take me," James testified. "I thought I had stepped on an electrical wire. I thought there was an invasion from outer space."

The 65-year-old career teacher expressed opposition to campus-carry legislation and told lawmakers that solutions to school violence should be weighted toward prevention and aggressive efforts to deal with mental illness.

"I feel we should be very careful about what we introduce and what we want to see as our model and how we protect ourselves," she said.

A hero speaks

But a hero from the 2009 attack at Fort Hood sided with the proposals.

As a sergeant, Howard Ray of Killeen received the Army Commendation Medal for carrying nine people to safety when a gunman opened fire at a processing center, killing 13 and wounding 30.

An Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in the assault.

"That day was a clear message to me that our citizens should never be restricted in their ability to carry" firearms, said Ray, now a 31-year-old graduate student at Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen.

Members of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee heard testimony -- but didn't vote -- on campus-carry bills by Capriglione and three other lawmakers.

Campus-carry legislation failed in the 2011 Legislature, but the slayings of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut just before Christmas have heightened calls for more stringent measures to protect students at public schools, colleges and universities.

Reps. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball; Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; and Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, are also pushing campus-carry measures.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who represents part of Tarrant County, has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Those with concealed-handgun licenses are allowed to have firearms on the grounds and parking lots of colleges and universities but cannot carry guns into buildings.

Capriglione told committee members that his bill, HB706, unlike the others, would not exempt any campus building.

His proposed law would apply to public and private institutions of higher learning, although private schools could "opt out."

University opposition

The University of Texas System, which includes campuses in Arlington and Dallas, resurrected its opposition to the measure on the eve of the hearing.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry, UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa expressed concerns that the presence of concealed weapons "will contribute to a less-safe campus environment."

Sovik, however, said faculty members should be allowed to have guns inside classrooms to protect themselves and students against potential threats from a "lunatic with an automatic rifle."

He said he also worries about a potential encounter with students after being threatened "many times" during his 21/2 decades as a UNT professor.

He said he has been "repeatedly threatened with bodily harm by students." In one case, he said, a student posted a Facebook threat to kill him. Another student, he said, was removed by two university policemen after smashing electronic equipment in his large-lecture classroom.

Although he reported the incidents to university authorities, he said, "no disciplinary action was ever taken against any of the students."

UNT spokesman Buddy Price, asked to respond to Sovik's committee testimony, said "threats against a UNT faculty member or anyone on this campus are very rare and when reported are immediately investigated by the UNT police."

"It doesn't appear that Dr. Sovik filed any police reports where a student threatened him with bodily harm or personal injury," he said.

Price also said that, in keeping with federal law, UNT does not discuss specifics of any student conduct investigation or disciplinary action.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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