Texas is now 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 on Wednesday, the state Senate gave preliminary approval to a measure that would repeal existing law prohibiting concealed handgun license holders from carrying their weapons there.
The vote on Senate Bill 11 was along party lines, with all 11 of the chamber’s Democrats opposing it.
“My concern is to expand the freedom of our most trustworthy citizens,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, as he introduced the legislation.
Birdwell, along with other gun rights advocates, has argued that restrictions on where such license holders can carry their firearms infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Lawmakers have struggled to pass such a law for several sessions — in part 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 the current legislative 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 attempting to derail or highlight flaws in the legislation.
That included asking whether it was fair to exempt private universities from the law. (Private campuses may already allow concealed carry if they so 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 state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, suggested Birdwell had bowed to pressure from Baylor University, a large employer and private campus in Birdwell's 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 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.
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.
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.
After a final vote Thursday, the legislation will advance to the House for approval.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, the University of Houston and the Texas A&M University System are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Texas Southern University was a corporate sponsor in 2014, and Rice University was a corporate sponsor from 2011 to 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.