ARLINGTON -- The possibility of a new state law that would let people carry concealed handguns at Texas colleges has renewed the debate about whether the measure would make schools safer or more dangerous.
"I just wouldn't be comfortable sitting in class and knowing the stranger sitting next to me could have a gun on them," student Minji An said at a well-attended forum Thursday night at the University of Texas at Arlington.
An, a freshman, said she worried not only about more students using guns to settle grievances but also about accidental shootings when, for example, a student drops a backpack and a weapon inside discharges.
Supporters of the bill said nothing prevents a person who intends to cause harm from bringing a gun onto campus now.
"I think the people who are against it aren't very familiar with guns," said junior Sean Turner, who said he has a permit to carry a concealed handgun. "People who plan to do something wrong don't go through all the paperwork and classes it takes to get a permit."
More than half the members of the Texas House have signed on as co-authors of a bill that would compel state universities to allow concealed handguns. Private universities could still ban them.
A similar measure passed the Senate in 2009 but never got a vote in the House.
Utah is the only state to enact such a law.
Some universities are proceeding as if they expect the change to happen. Representatives from campuses in the University of North Texas System plan to meet soon to discuss the potential impact, a school official said.
"I'm new in Texas but the people that are close to what goes on [in Austin] told me to expect it to pass," said UNT President V. Lane Rawlins, a former president at Washington State University.
UNT's student housing department "is already trying to plan ahead to where they would have storage for weapons and things of that sort," he said.
UNT administrators oppose the legislation, he said.
"We think it is potentially dangerous, not useful and antithetical to the very spirit of what college campuses are about," Rawlins said.
Event was not a debate
The UTA forum was an informational event rather than one meant to sway opinion, said moderator Alex del Carmen, chairman of the department of criminology and criminal justice.
"We are not here to advocate or deny anybody their rights," he said. "No one here is going to laugh at someone else's opinion."
Students wondered what costs the law might impose on the university and whether the Student Congress could enact rules that would affect who could carry concealed weapons.
School officials didn't offer a cost estimate. The short answer to the Student Congress question was "no."
Daniel Crocker, Southwest regional director for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, said he wishes his group had been given a formal speaking role at the UTA forum because of its members' knowledge of the subject.
Crocker said concealed weapons on campus have not caused "a single problem" in Utah since the law was made in 2006.
"I think it's good that legislators in the state of Texas are finally starting to realize it's time to stop giving criminals a government guarantee that any potential victims are disarmed," Crocker said.
Opponents of the bill say college campuses are already very safe. Records show only one homicide since 2001 on a Texas campus, said Marsha McCartney of the Brady Campaign in Texas.
Similar measures have failed previously in 23 states, including Texas, she said.
They have "failed because the universities don't want it, the parents don't want it and the students don't want it," McCartney said. "The only reason they are doing this in Austin is because the [National Rifle Association] told them they need to."
Dorms called nonissue
One concern raised by opponents of the bill is how concealed weapons would affect student housing.
Elizabeth With, UNT vice president of student affairs, said the legislation gives schools the authority to make some rules, such as requiring weapon storage and letting students choose not to live with a roommate with a concealed handgun.
"However, [guns] would not have a positive effect on student life," she said.
Crocker said that "dorms are a nonissue that some people want to blow up into a big issue" and that most people must be 21 in Texas to get a concealed-handgun permit.
"People who live on campus are your freshmen or sophomores," Crocker said. "People with concealed-handgun permits are your faculty, your staff, your older students and grad students. They don't live on campus."
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689