After hearing testimony from faculty, students and law enforcement officers Tuesday, a panel of state senators passed along a bill allowing college students, faculty and staff to carry concealed handguns on college and university campuses around the state.
Known as "campus carry" legislation, House Bill 972, by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, would allow colleges and universities to let concealed handgun license holders store or carry weapons on campuses if they are 21 or older, whether they are students, staff or faculty. The bill now heads to the Senate floor.
"This bill takes steps towards allowing the same trained adults who carry on a day-to-day basis to protect themselves on college campuses," said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who is sponsoring the legislation.
"It's no different than when they go home and take their gun to the movies, to the mall," said Ellis County Sheriff Johnny Brown, the first in a long list of people who testified Tuesday in front of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Several college students expressed concerns about the rise of mass shootings and sexual assaults on college campuses. "You can't outlaw crazy, and you can't outlaw evil," said Mark Hamlin, a University of Texas at Austin senior and Air Force veteran who has a concealed handgun license and supports the measure. "I feel like I need to protect myself from the crazy and the evil in this world."
The bill has numerous provisions, including one that requires institutions to renew their policies annually after consulting with faculty, staff and students. Colleges can also opt out of participation.
Carrying a concealed weapon would still be prohibited at sporting events, hospitals and elementary schools that are located on a college campus. Before the bill passed the House in early May, Fletcher allowed amendments to prevent CHL holders from taking firearms to other “official mass gatherings" or on campuses that include “biocontainment” laboratories like the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
But other students argued the bill would make them less safe. "I think it is irresponsible to legislate things that don't affect you," UT-Austin student Leslie Tisdale told the committee. "I want to sit in my classroom and not fear Virginia Tech," she added, referring to the 2009 campus shooting in which 32 people were killed.
Grace Chimene, a pediatric nurse with children in college, asked lawmakers to not mix guns with the stress of university life. "Students should be allowed to have successes and failures at college without the danger of increased access to guns," she said.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the committee, took issue with Chimene's suggestion that the bill would increase access to guns on campuses. "Wouldn't those stresses exist a block off campus?" he asked. He noted that in the state Capitol building, there are similarly high emotions and stresses to a college campus, and yet concealed handguns are currently allowed by law.
"I used to worry every day I gave a test back to students," said Baylor University math professor Lance Littlejohn, "that one student with take issue with their grade and let me have it — literally — with both barrels."
But lawmakers said they would need facts and statistics before taking Littlejohn's concerns into consideration. "You're just basing this on emotional opinions," said state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.
"If this bill passes, would you hand back my exams to my students?" Littlejohn asked him.
"I think that is such a far-fetched issue ... a student could be sitting there right now with a weapon, who brought it illegally," responded Patrick, who voted for the measure.
Whitmire warned opponents of the bill that a more stringent version of campus carry, with no local control, could come up during a potential special session. “Take my word for it. If this version does not pass, the other version will be presented during a special session, during the summer, with a different set of rules that would facilitate the passage of the more stringent bill,” he said.
Whitmire, as well as state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, voted against the measure.