Members of the University of Texas System Board of Regents raised concern about their schools’ proposed rules for handguns on campus and signaled plans to attempt to change some of those policies before they go into effect on Aug 1.
Expected to give final approval of those rules Thursday, the regents instead became bogged down in a debate over their worries. In the end, they decided to delay the vote until a future meeting.
Three issues arose during the 45-minute discussion. Regents said they were unsure about the logistics of a rule at UT-Austin that would allow professors and other staff to ban guns in their individual offices. They expressed a desire to change another UT-Austin rule that would have banned people from carrying guns with bullets stored in their chambers. And they proposed a new rule that would require people to carry their guns in a holster that covers the trigger.
Ultimately, they decided to research the issues more before taking action.
“Let’s handle this issue collectively and resolve all of the issues with thorough investigation,” said Regent Jeffery Hildebrand.
The rules are being discussed because of the passage of Senate Bill 11 in 2015, which required all public universities to allow people with concealed handgun licenses to carry their guns in campus buildings. The law allowed universities to make some exceptions by creating limited gun-free zones. But those zones can't have the effect of making it practically impossible to carry a gun at all.
The responsibility for writing those rules was assigned to each university president. But the regents are allowed to revise them with a two-thirds vote.
The rules, which vary by campus, have many similarities. All universities will allow guns in classrooms, but will ban them in child care facilities and laboratories with dangerous chemicals. Some schools, including UT-Austin, will ban handguns in dormitories.
The ideas of allowing bans in particular offices and the no-bullet-in-the-chamber rule are unique to UT-Austin. University President Greg Fenves said that professors would be allowed to declare verbally that they don’t want guns in their offices, and would be expected to make that announcement at the beginning of the semester.
The no-bullet-in-the-chamber rule was designed to prevent accidental discharges, he said. When the university researched campus carry in other states, it found that most on-campus incidents related guns involved people accidentally firing their weapons. Many guns have safety features to prevent that, but the law doesn’t give the university the authority to require those features. So a no-bullet-in-the-chamber policy is the next best solution, Fenves said.
“We believe it is a safety issue,” he said.
But regents said they worried that the chamber rule was misguided.
“What I am told by the experts that I have asked for advice from is that it is a significant risk to have people moving rounds in and out of chamber,” Board Chairman Paul Foster said. “That is the instance where an accidental discharge takes place. It is not from carrying a gun around that that has a round in the chamber.”
With a two-thirds vote required, it’s difficult to say whether the regents will be able to act on any of their concerns. Many seemed to have their own unique opinions, and would need to build a consensus before a vote. If no changes are approved, the rules will go into effect as the presidents wrote them.
The process of writing those rules ignited controversy on the UT-Austin campus. Faculty groups were adamantly opposed to the law and urged Fenves to ban guns in classrooms. UT-Austin leadership determined that was impossible, though.
Fenves recommended a ban in dorms, however, which set off a furor among supporters of the campus carry law. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a nonbinding legal opinion that bans in dorms violated the law. And the group Students for Concealed Carry has complained about the chamber rule.
"The UT-Austin officials who opted for a politically expedient policy over the policy recommended by the experts have surrendered any claim to the moral high ground," said Antonia Okafor, southwest regional director for Students for Concealed Carry, in a statement before the meeting. "It is clear that they care more about the appearance of safety than about the actual safety of faculty, staff, and students."
Meanwhile, Andrea Brauer, executive director for Texas Gun Sense urged regents to add a ban on campus gyms, saying other schools in the state have taken that step.
"We see no reason for a gun in a gym where students and faculty will be participating in exercise or sports," she said.
Fenves defended his campus rules, saying they “promote campus safety and are compliant with the law.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas System, the University of Texas at Austin and Paul Foster have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.