Legislation requiring the state’s public universities to allow handguns in dorms, classrooms and campus buildings is now one step away from becoming law.
After final approval from the Texas House Sunday, Senate Bill 11 now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he will sign the measure. The state Senate approved the bill Saturday.
It took about an hour Sunday for the chamber to pass the controversial measure — over the passionate pleas of several Democrats who rose to speak against it — on a 98-to-47 vote.
“Texas has got to get past its obsession with guns and start placing its resources on our students and institutions,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. “This should not be the banner headline from this legislative session.”
The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Allen Fletcher, said the media, parents, students and higher education officials had exaggerated the consequences of the bill. He said the measure simply broadened current law that already allowed concealed handguns on campus outside of university buildings and classrooms.
“I just feel that the time has come for us to protect the men and women of Texas who are carrying concealed on our campuses,” said Fletcher, a Cypress Republican.
Last week, the legislation narrowly avoided becoming a casualty of a key midnight deadline after House lawmakers brokered a last-minute deal to accept changes allowing universities to carve out gun-free zones in locations of their choice and including private colleges in the requirements.
Under the final version of the bill, universities and colleges will still be able to establish their own rules on where handguns are carried and how they're stored based on public safety concerns. Only concealed handgun license holders — who must be at least 21 years old — would be allowed to carry their firearms on campus, and private universities would be allowed to opt out of the requirement altogether.
The language that would have required private universities to allow handguns on campus was stripped out by the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, during negotiations between the two chambers.
"I am duty-bound to protect Second Amendment rights parallel to private property rights," he said Thursday. "We must protect most private property rights equally, and not protect one or the other.”
When the bill passed the Senate Saturday, Birdwell said it would allow for “very limited, reasonable prohibitions” on handguns in certain locations on university property.
He said his intent was that public college campuses would be as “permissive and accessible” as possible to handgun license holders and that universities would be as “specific and as minimalistic as possible” in defining restricted areas. The bill would not, Birdwell said, allow for universities to exempt entire dormitories or buildings from the requirement based on a technicality.
During the House’s debate on the measure Sunday, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who participated in the negotiations, contradicted Birdwell’s interpretation.
The San Antonio Democrat, who participated in negotiations between the two chambers on the bill, suggested the language of the bill allowed for more latitude than the comments of Birdwell, as well as those of Republican state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, indicated.
“The words in the conference committee report that exist in various sections completely disagree with those remarks and sentiments made by Senator Birdwell and Taylor,” he said.
Martinez Fischer then added that the fight over the allowing handguns on college campuses was just getting started as university leaders begin to craft their own rules in response to the new law.
The compromise between the two chambers was enough for Students for Concealed Carry to declare a loss in a statement blasting the legislation. The group's board of directors said Sunday that lawmakers had given "opponents of campus carry exactly what they wanted — complete local control over licensed concealed carry at Texas public college."
"We at Students for Concealed Carry would appreciate it the bill's authors and sponsors would quit confusing the issue by claiming a victory for our side," they said. "We don’t need to hide behind a gutted bill to save face. We'll try again in 2017."
Following the vote, University of Texas System President William McRaven, who has vocally opposed the policy since the start of the legislative session, also issued a statement. He said the university "would do everything in our power to maintain safe and secure campuses."
"It is helpful that the bill was amended to allow our campus presidents to consult with students, faculty and staff to develop rules and regulations that will govern the carrying of concealed handguns on campuses," he said.