Nearly a year after UT stabbing, mother of slain student wants to fight knife laws

Lori Brown's plans aren't fully formed. But she's determined to push for new laws in Texas that she believes will prevent stabbing sprees like the one that killed her son.

Lori Brown, whose son Harrison Brown died in a May 2017 stabbing at the University of Texas at Austin, poses for a portrait at her home in Graham, Texas, on Feb. 27, 2018. Cooper Neill for The Texas Tribune

* Correction appended. 

GRAHAM — The first thing you'd notice is the "B"s. 

In Lori Brown's tidy, sweet-smelling, two-bedroom home, there’s a whole kitchen wall tacked up with the letter — a big silver metal “B,” a red and yellow woven “B,” a capital “B” tucked into the womb of a lowercase “b.” She even has “HBI” tattooed on her right wrist (and, she emphasizes, “I am not a tattoo person.”)

That’s dedicated to her son Harrison Irwin Brown, who was stabbed to death at the University of Texas at Austin in May. 

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Now, in memory of Harrison, Lori Brown has set her sights on another HB: House Bill 1935, a new state law that allows Texans to wield just about any knife just about anywhere. The irony of the initials, she says, still jabs at her.

The bill was up for consideration in the Texas House in early May 2017, the week Harrison Brown was killed.

On that Monday, police say Kendrex White, then a 21-year-old biology major at UT-Austin, stabbed four male victims outside the campus's main gym. White has since been charged with murder and assault, and he has been found competent to stand trial despite past mental health issues.

Harrison Brown, who had just finished a workout, was the only fatality. He had just called his mother — to reassure he that he was awake for class and tell her that he loved her — as he did every day. Lori Brown has kept his bloody backpack still stocked with everything he was carrying that day, down to a half-full water bottle.

On the Friday after the stabbing, the Texas House unanimously passed a resolution honoring Harrison’s memory. Four days later, the lower chamber passed the knife bill with just three “nay” votes; it would pass the Senate almost unanimously two weeks later. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed it into law in June.

Before the law went into effect Sept. 1, knives with blades longer than five-and-a-half inches could not be legally carried outside the home. They can now be carried anywhere except for a handful of restricted locations, including bars and college premises. The location restrictions were added in an amendment after the UT-Austin stabbing, and lobbyists said they hope to roll them back in future, though the bill's author, Lubbock Republican John Frullo, said he'd like to wait and see.

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But for now, the restriction means that the Bowie knife that killed Harrison Brown remains illegal 10 months later.

Lori Brown knows all that.

Still, “I would love to see that bill completely repealed,” she said in a recent interview, punctuating her words with emphatic hand gestures. “Let’s come up with a license, a timeframe, a background check. Mental health issues are also a big problem.”

Brown also said she'd like to see metal detectors at every door to every campus building. She’d like the state Legislature to address mental health issues, like the troubles that seem to have plagued White.

She’s started by calling her local representatives, as well as the author of the bill. A pink Post-it on her calendar lists her targets and her progress. It’s not clear where the effort will go next, but she does not plan to take “no” for an answer.

Brown’s state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, has already spoken with her about the issue (there’s a “yes” scrawled next to his name on the Post-it). Springer told The Texas Tribune he respects her grief but disagrees with her on knife policy. Repealing HB 1935 wouldn’t solve the problem, he said; instead, the Legislature should focus on addressing mental illness. Frullo made much the same point.

Brown attributes the Legislature’s near-unanimous support of the bill to the six weeks that Todd Rathner, the director of legislative affairs for the national organization Knife Rights, spent at the Capitol advocating for it. Rathner also said he empathizes with Brown but disagrees with her policy ideas.

“I’m not really sure what repealing HB 1935 or any other law will do to stop a madman from committing murder,” Rathner said. “I just don’t think there’s any policy having to do with knives that would’ve saved him.”

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Brown has predicted this argument — she knows, she says, what knife advocates will tell her.

“‘The law isn’t gonna matter, they’re gonna do it anyway,’” she said, quoting the argument she expects to hear. “Don’t tell me it isn’t going to matter. It’s so easy for people to say that.”

Brown has been planning to get involved in advocacy work since her son’s death. It was the recent deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that spurred her to action now, she said.

She hasn't been able to watch much of the coverage of the event — she says she knows too well what victims' families are feeling. But she has been particularly inspired by the high school students who, after losing their classmates in the attack, have launched gun control lobbying efforts at the state and national levels.

"Watching those students make their way to Tallahassee — and just the passion and how eloquently they spoke, their purpose — I just thought, 'They're doing something,'" she said. "More people need to be doing this. And that's when I thought, 'I need to be out there — now is the time for me.'"

Brown is petite, and she speaks firmly and forcefully, with the unique determination of a mother who has lost a son. Her ideas are not yet fully formed, but she’s just getting started. She and her older son, John, promised each other they would.

“I’m doing the right thing,” she said last week, with conviction. “I need to be out there — for Harrison.” 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of Texas House representatives who voted against HB 1935. Three members voted against it.