Texas is a step closer to requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on campus — a policy opposed by many higher education leaders.
After nearly five hours of debate Wednesday, the state Senate gave preliminary approval to a measure that would repeal a law prohibiting holders of concealed-handgun licenses from carrying their weapons there.
The vote on Senate Bill 11 was along party lines, with all 11 Democrats opposing it.
“My concern is to expand the freedom of our most trustworthy citizens,” the bill’s author, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said as he introduced the legislation.
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Birdwell, along with other gun-rights advocates, has argued that restrictions on where license holders can carry their firearms infringe on the Second Amendment.
Lawmakers have struggled to pass such a law for several sessions — partly because of procedural rules in the Senate that required the approval of two-thirds of senators before any bill could come to the floor. That rule was changed at the start of this session at the prompting of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats acknowledged at several points that they knew the bill already had the votes to pass. But they put up a spirited defense, offering about two dozen amendments that sought to derail or highlight flaws in the legislation.
That included asking whether it’s fair to exempt private universities from the law. Private campuses may already allow concealed carry if they choose.
“How in the world can your bill require University of Houston, [Texas Southern University], Houston Community College to allow students to have concealed weapons but Rice University in the same community can opt out?” asked Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, suggested that Birdwell had bowed to pressure from Baylor University, a large employer and private campus in his district.
“It is interesting that you would put this in public universities, in other people’s districts, but not private when the largest employer in your district is a private university,” Ellis said.
Birdwell responded that the bill is designed to respect private-property rights — and that private universities could decide whether to allow firearms just like any other property owner.
The leaders of Fort Worth’s best-known private university are staunch foes of the proposal.
Kathy Cavins-Tull, vice chancellor for student affairs at TCU, said: “The ramifications of allowing an individual to carry a weapon on campus would create dangerous situations and, in essence, put faculty, staff, students and university guests in the line of fire. If it passes, TCU would advocate for an exemption that provides private institutions with a chance as to whether they would permit an individual to carry a weapon on campus.”
Who should decide?
Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, questioned why higher education administrators shouldn’t be trusted to set their own policies.
“This really should be left up to local officials who deal with this on a daily basis,” she said. “You put so much trust in the [license] holder but not in university presidents.”
She also relayed the concerns that administrators have raised about the cost of allowing concealed handguns on campus.
Birdwell said such concerns are “improperly placed.”
“A fundamental right granted by the Creator is not subordinate to the financial costs or speculation … of our universities,” he added.
Among the higher education leaders who have asked the Legislature not to change the law is University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven.
McRaven, a former Navy SEAL commander who was in charge of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote a letter to lawmakers at the start of the session cautioning that such a policy would make colleges less safe.
“There is great concern that the presence of handguns, even if limited to licensed individuals age 21 or older, will lead to an increase in both accidental shootings and self-inflicted wounds,” he said.
Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp sent a letter to lawmakers as well, saying he has “complete trust and faith” in his students and professors, which is why Texas A&M “will not have a position on this issue and will not oppose campus carry.”
University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson has noted that the bill could negatively affect a “younger-than-average population, some living away from home for the first time.”
“My only suggestion for improvement … would be to delegate some of this responsibility” to those who govern the universities, Jackson said.
Other gun bills
Birdwell’s proposal is part of a slate of high-profile gun bills that lawmakers are considering this session.
SB17, which would allow license holders to carry their guns in a holster instead of keeping them concealed, passed in the Senate this week. That bill would not apply to university campuses if both pieces of legislation become law.
To receive a concealed-handgun license, Texans must be at least 21, take a half-day training course, and pass criminal background and mental health checks.
Public universities can opt to allow guns on campus, but Texas A&M is the only one that has done so.
After a final vote today, the legislation will advance to the House for approval.
Tarrant County Sens. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are among the co-authors of the campus-carry bill.
Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.