Politics & Government

Few ‘gun-free’ zones proposed for UTA under campus carry

The University of Texas at Arlington
The University of Texas at Arlington Courtesy

Concealed handguns could be allowed on most of the University of Texas at Arlington campus — including dorms, classrooms and faculty offices — as soon as next fall.

A draft plan proposes carving out a few gun-free zones: an on-campus day care facility, some dorms where youth summer camps are held, buildings where mental, behavioral and health services are provided and sports facilities used by the UIL, the NCAA or for professional sports events.

But the school’s proposal doesn’t go as far with restrictions as has been proposed at the University of Texas at Austin, where dorms and faculty offices would be off limits.

“The safety and security of our campus community — especially our students — is of the greatest importance to and the top priority of all of us at UTA,” according to a statement online.

The issue of where to allow concealed handguns on public college campuses statewide has been heating up since lawmakers earlier this year passed a measure letting licensed Texans carry concealed handguns at universities starting in August 2016 and at community colleges in 2017.

Private colleges may opt out, if they so choose, and public universities may create gun-free zones on part, but not all, of the campus.

UTA officials plan on presenting this preliminary plan — which could change before campus carry becomes law Aug. 1 — to UT officials Friday, just days after the campus was on high-alert after a man believed to be carrying weapons was seen inside a building. Officials eventually determined the man didn’t have a gun and classes resumed.

The University of Texas System is collecting draft campus carry plans from all of its universities, including UTA, and “providing guidance if asked,” said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman with the UT system.

Final plans will go before the Board of Regents in early spring. And while they don’t have to be approved, regents, by a two-thirds majority, can vote to alter the plans.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about this,” said Rebecca Deen, who heads the UTA political science department. “The challenge for administrators on campus is to remain compliant and true to the legislation while at the same time understanding universities are places where people can be under great stress.

“Finding the balance is extraordinarily hard.”

The issue

Texans with concealed handgun licenses have been able to carry on college campuses, but not in buildings, since lawmakers approved the concealed handgun law 20 years ago, lawmakers say.

This new measure lets them carry them into dorms or classrooms, instead of requiring them to take their handguns back to their vehicles before entering the buildings.

The only people legally allowed to carry concealed handguns on campus are those who have a concealed handgun permit, meaning they are at least 21 and have met requirements that include training and proficiency tests.

In Texas, nearly 914,000 people — or almost 4 percent of the state’s 27 million residents — have a License To Carry, according to Texas Department of Public Safety records.

Private colleges, such as TCU and the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, have already opted out, as they are allowed to do, and many public universities are still working on plans to determine where guns may be carried on campus.

A separate measure allowing licensed Texans to openly carry holstered handguns throughout the state takes effect Jan. 1 but does not apply to college campuses.

UTA officials have spent months holding town hall meetings and other gatherings, trying to gather feedback on what students and professors would like to see happen with the campus carry law.

And they plan to gather more feedback after the winter break.

‘Not fearful’

When the campus carry law goes into effect next year, Texas will be one of eight states allowing concealed weapons on college campuses, along with Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Similar proposals are being considered in other states.

Gun-Free UT, a group whose members are mostly professors, has been asking leaders at the University of Texas in Austin to keep guns out of the classrooms — or professors might sue, saying the law infringes on their rights.

UTA’s plans differ from proposals at UT’s Austin campus, where an early proposal suggests that guns be banned from faculty offices and dorms.

Officials at public colleges have said the plan could cost nearly $50 million in coming years — because additional officers, training, storage facilities and security technology would be needed — and that expense that might be passed to students.

UTA’s plan does not include on-campus storage for weapons, the draft shows.

“Providing storage increases the time and frequency spent handling a firearm, thus increasing the risk of accidental discharges, ability for others to identify license holders and possibility of theft of firearms,” the draft stated.

While some worry that guns on campus will create a dangerous situation, at least one professor believes it will not.

“I am not fearful of my students,” said Allan Saxe, an associate professor of political science at UTA. “I am of the opinion that potential crazed ‘shooters’ will think twice knowing there are likely those around them with guns.

“Our society must learn to be civilized, and until then I believe that carrying guns with proper licensing should be permissible,” he said. “I will not be ‘packing heat’ but [will] rely on my students to do so responsibly and protect me.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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