AUSTIN -- Legislation to allow licensed concealed handguns in buildings at colleges and universities appears bogged down in the state Senate, but the bill's sponsor says his efforts to win passage are far from over.
"No, it's not dead," Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said Tuesday. "It's clearly not dead."
SB354 has encountered opposition from students and officials at public and private universities, including several in North Texas, who fear that expanding gun rights on campuses could endanger students' lives. But Wentworth and other supporters say the bill would provide additional safeguards in an age of increasing campus violence.
Wentworth acknowledged Tuesday that he is at least one vote shy of the 21 needed to bring up the bill for debate in the Senate. He tried Thursday but backed off after it became clear that he lacked the votes.
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Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, signaled his support for the bill but agreed that it is still short of votes. "I understand the concerns of university presidents, but I'm a strong supporter ... of the Second Amendment," Dewhurst told reporters. "So we'll see where the senators are on this matter."
Among the three senators who represent Tarrant County, Republicans Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Chris Harris of Arlington support the bill, and Democrat Wendy Davis of Fort Worth opposes it.
If the bill comes up for debate, Davis plans an amendment that would allow colleges and universities, both public and private, to opt out of the requirements. Wentworth says he is receptive to a few amendments but opposes Davis'.
The Senate bill and an almost identical version in the House would allow private colleges and universities to opt out after consulting their students and faculty.
But three private universities in the Metroplex -- Texas Christian University and Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth and Southern Methodist University in Dallas -- have expressed opposition to the measure, even with the opt-out provision. James Spaniolo, president of the publicly funded University of Texas at Arlington, has also opposed the bill.
"We're not in favor of it," said Steve Roberts, associate vice president at Texas Wesleyan. "We just don't feel like adding more guns to the mix is going to help the situation."
Spaniolo has expressed concern that "allowing handguns on campus would significantly increase the potential for members of our community to be injured or killed." TCU officials said in a statement that the legislation could create "dangerous situations" on campuses by potentially putting faculty, staff and students "in the line of fire."
Students have lined up on both sides of the issue. Aaron Resendez, president of the Student Congress at UTA, sent e-mails to every member of the Legislature this week telling them that the congress has overwhelmingly opposed allowing concealed handguns on campuses.
The bill's sponsors counter that it could let people protect themselves during a violent episode such as the massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. They also point out that Texans must be 21 years old to qualify for a concealed weapon permit, meaning that most undergraduate students could not carry guns.
Wentworth said Tuesday that he had 20 votes "right now" and believed that momentum could be turning in his direction. Over the last two days, he said, e-mails have been running "two- or three-to-one" in his favor.
Asked about possible strategy for bringing up the bill, Wentworth told reporters: "My plan is not to tell you all what I'm planning to do."
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294