AUSTIN -- The state Senate voted Monday for a higher education spending bill with an amendment that has nothing to do with money -- it allows licensed carriers of concealed handguns to take their weapons into public college buildings and classrooms.
By a final vote of 19-12, a straight party-line vote, the spending bill was sent to the House.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, couldn't muster the votes he needed under Senate rules to pass the concealed-carry measure as its own bill after meeting stiff resistance from higher education officials, notably from within the University of Texas System.
But after several failed attempts, he won a vote to amend it to the spending bill.
The Senate's 12 Democrats had mostly worked as a bloc to stop the measure but were powerless Monday when it took only a simple majority in the 31-member chamber to add it to the spending bill as an amendment.
At that point, Wentworth even picked up an extra vote from Rep. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who had previously opposed the measure.
Supporters call it a crucial self-defense measure and gun-rights issue. Opponents worry that concealed handguns could lead to more campus violence and suicides.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who was a student at the University of Texas in 1966 when sniper Charles Whitman killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others, vigorously argued against the measure.
She predicted mass chaos if police respond to a call and find several people with guns drawn.
"I can't imagine the horrors if this passes," Zaffirini said.
Wentworth was unmoved. He recalled the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech University, when a gunman killed 32 people, and said he wants to give students a chance to defend themselves.
"There was no one there to defend themselves in a gun-free zone that was a victim-rich zone," Wentworth said. "I'm trying to avoid that type of situation."
Monday's Senate vote may clear the way for a vote in the House. A similar House bill has been approved in committee but is stalled without a vote by the full chamber.
Earlier Monday, senators voted to allow themselves to carry concealed handguns into places the rest of the public cannot, such as churches, restaurants and sporting events.
Clayton Smith, a leader for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus at Tarrant County College, said supporters of the measure were "really excited" by the Senate action.
"Now we just need to focus all of our energy to get the House calendar committee to put it on an agenda," Smith, 21, said.
"We just want people to be able to defend themselves the same way they would anywhere else in the state," Smith said. "College campuses aren't any safer than anywhere else in the state. Bad things happen on college campuses just as they do anywhere else."
At TCC Northeast Campus, students signed a petition against concealed handguns on campus.
"I'm very uneasy about having handguns on campus," said Chrissa Hartle, a member of the Student Political Awareness Club.
But she said she expects the bill to eventually pass. She hopes lawmakers will incorporate more gun safety education and a psychological test for people who want to get a concealed-handgun license.
"I feel very proud of all the work we put into fighting it," she said.
Wentworth's stand-alone bill seemed all but assured easy passage when the legislative session began in January. The Senate had passed a similar bill in 2009 and about 90 lawmakers in the 150-member House had signed on in support this year. But the bill stalled on its first three votes in the Senate.
Wentworth's bill originally covered private universities as well but was changed to cover only public institutions.
Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it into law if it reaches his desk.
Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report.