When Texas lawmakers in 2015 were considering allowing the concealed carry of handguns on college campuses by license holders, the leadership at the University of Texas System was one of the idea’s most powerful opponents.
Campus carry became law anyway, and now the system and other early critics are taking a different stance: Let’s not stir this pot again.
Since the law went into effect Aug. 1 there have been no major incidents, and once-fervent opposition has settled down. Some lawmakers will try to tweak the law in 2017 when the Legislature convenes, but many on both sides seem happy not to rekindle the fractious debate. The UT System is instead focusing on keeping the law the way it is, so that its limited power over where guns may be carried on its campuses remains.
It didn’t always seem destined to turn out that way. For much of 2016, campus carry was among the most divisive issues at colleges across the state. Protests and petitions popped up on nearly every public campus as university leaders figured out where they could and couldn’t continue to ban guns.
The law was designed to allow people over 21 with the proper license to carry their concealed handguns inside most public university buildings, but it let campus presidents declare a few areas off-limits. Many faculty members asked for bans in classrooms and professors’ offices. Meanwhile, pro-campus carry lawmakers warned school presidents not to go to far if they didn’t want lawmakers to take away their discretion in 2017.
We believe that all of our presidents ... made very well-reasoned decisions about where guns should not be allowed on each of our campuses.
Barry McBee, UT System vice chancellor for government relations
In the end, guns were allowed in classrooms, but banned in places like day care centers and football stadiums. Some universities allowed guns in dorms; others did not.
So far, fears of violence or accidental shootings haven’t been realized. One gun was accidentally shot off in a Tarleton State University dormitory, but no one was injured. With campus life not changing much, many school officials have backed off their opposition. At the UT System, Chancellor Bill McRaven, a retired Navy admiral, opposed campus carry in 2015. Now, the system’s priority is hanging onto the limited authority to bar guns in some settings.
“We believe that all of our presidents ... made very well-reasoned decisions about where guns should not be allowed on each of our campuses,” Barry McBee, vice chancellor for government relations, told the UT System Board of Regents this month. “And we hope those decisions remain in place.”
So far, there’s been little effort to overrule them. Last week, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said at an event on the UT Austin campus that he hasn’t seen any problems with the law.
But some changes will likely be proposed. Michael Newbern, assistant director of public relations for Students for Concealed Carry, said his group hopes to work with lawmakers on legislation that would clarify campus carry rules.
“We think the possibility for confusion as to what authority a university has is high,” he said.
Meanwhile, two Democratic lawmakers have already filed bills for the 2017 session that seek to allow public universities to opt out of campus carry and ban guns in their buildings. Private universities were given that right in 2015, and all but one opted to keep their gun bans in place.
“I represent a lot of people who work at UT, who teach at UT, who are students at UT and who are parents of students at UT, and they still contact me regularly with concerns about this law,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who authored one of the bills.
But in the gun-loving Texas Legislature, that kind of change is a long shot, Howard admitted.
“I don’t harbor any illusions that this is a smooth-sailing proposal,” she said.