Texas Campus Carry debate hits Senate floor

Courtesy The Texas Tribune

Texas may soon be a step closer to requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on campus — a policy opposed by many higher education leaders.

The state Senate began debate on a bill Wednesday that would repeal existing law prohibiting concealed handgun license holders from carrying their weapons on such campuses. Carried by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, Senate Bill 11 has 18 co-sponsors in the upper chamber, giving it an easy route to passage.

“My concern is to expand the freedom of our most trustworthy citizens,” Birdwell said as he introduced the bill.

Birdwell, along with other gun rights advocates, has argued that restrictions on where such license holders can carry their firearms infringes on Second Amendment rights.

By the time lawmakers began attempting to amend the bill — two-and-a-half hours after Birdwell initially introduced it — Senate Democrats had aired a series of arguments against so-called campus carry.

They asked whether it was fair to exempt private universities from the law, suggesting Birdwell had bowed to pressure from Baylor University, a large employer 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,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Private campuses may already allow concealed carry if they so choose. Birdwell responded that the bill was designed to respect private property rights — and that private universities could decide whether to allow firearms just like any other property owner.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, questioned why higher education administrators shouldn’t be trusted to make 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 alarm university administrators have raised about the costs of allowing concealed handguns on campus.

Birdwell said he thought such concerns were “improperly placed.”

“A fundamental right granted by the creator is not subordinate to the financial costs or speculation … of our universities,” he added.

Birdwell’s proposal is among a slate of high profile gun bills lawmakers are considering this session. A second — SB 17, which would allow handgun license holders to carry their weapons openly in a holster, instead of keeping them concealed — was passed out of the Senate earlier this week. That bill would not apply to university campuses if both pieces of legislation become law.

To receive a concealed handgun license, a Texan must be 21 or older, take a half-day training course, and pass criminal background and mental health checks. Currently, public universities can opt to allow guns on campus, but Texas A&M University is the only one that has chosen to do so.

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 SEALs commander who led the successful raid on Osama bin Laden, wrote a letter to lawmakers at the start of the session cautioning that such a policy would make colleges campuses 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.

Not all in higher education oppose the policy. A&M Chancellor John Sharp offered a contrasting view in his own letter, saying he did not worry about the safety of his students with handguns on campus.