Politics & Government

Texas ‘campus carry’ bill heads to governor

By Anna M. Tinsley

atinsley@star-telegram.com

May 31, 2015 6:32 PM

AUSTIN

Texas House members made one of the last major moves of the 84th Legislature on Sunday, giving final approval to a plan that lets licensed Texans carry concealed handguns on college campuses statewide after years of rejecting it.

The 98-47 vote formally sends the divisive Senate Bill 11 to Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it, along with an already-approved plan to let licensed Texans openly carry holstered handguns statewide.

The question now is whether TCU and other private universities will opt out of campus carry, as the final version allows them to do. The answer may take a while, however, because while TCU and others say they’ve been watching closely, they’ve made it clear they’re not prepared to discuss details of how they will carry out what the bill does and doesn’t require them to do.

Opponents to this bill have “made much ado about nothing,” said state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, who urged colleagues to support the measure. “The time has come for us to protect the men and women carrying concealed on campus.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, disagreed.

“Campus carry is a solution in search of a problem and one that students, faculty, university leadership, and people across our state overwhelmingly oppose,” he said. “With so many priorities left unaddressed, it’s a shame that the Legislature has spent so much time and energy on an unneeded law that will cost millions of dollars and result in unintended consequences for years to come.”

Sunday’s campus carry vote comes on the heels of lawmakers wrapping up other major business, such as approving a $209.4 billion two-year budget that includes nearly $4 billion in franchise tax cuts and property tax relief for Texans and $800 million for border security.

While many issues have been addressed over the past 139 days, expanding gun rights has played a starring role.

“The actual policy impact of these laws pales in relevance to the notable increase in transportation funding and the tax relief provided to businesses and homeowners, as well as to legislation which did not pass,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

“All the same, because of the high profile nature of the legislation and the debate over it, open carry and campus carry will be two issues that the 84th Legislative Session will be remembered for in years to come.”

The campus carry measure — which has been through a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate versions — would go into effect next fall and in 2017 for community and junior colleges.

Presidents of public colleges and universities have the right to ban guns in “reasonable” areas of the campus, although they can’t completely prevent guns from being on campus. Private colleges in Texas may completely opt out of campus carry.

The Legislature wraps up 140 days of work Monday.

Differing arguments

Texans with concealed handgun licenses have been able to carry on college campuses, but not in buildings, since lawmakers approved the concealed carry law 20 years ago, Fletcher said.

This bill, he said, will let them carry them into dorms or classrooms, instead of requiring them to take their handgun back to their vehicles before entering the buildings.

The only people legally allowed to carry concealed handguns on campus are those who have a concealed handgun permit — meaning they are at least 21 and have met various requirements such as going through training and passing proficiency tests.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said this bill is only the beginning.

“I don’t believe this fight is over,” he said of the measure he opposes. “(It) is only beginning.”

Tarrant County House Republicans supported the bill; Tarrant County Democrats opposed it.

“We are pleased that the final version of SB 11 contains provisions granting universities broad discretion to keep their communities safe by deciding where and when it is appropriate to allow guns on campus,” said Sandy Chasse, a volunteer with the Texas Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “This compromise respects the wishes of the vast majority of university stakeholders.

“We thank the lawmakers this session who finally woke up to the fact that those who seek commonsense gun policies will not back down in the face of uncivil and unsafe laws.”

Supporters say campus carry — which failed in past sessions — is needed to let teachers and students defend themselves.

Officials at public colleges say the plan could cost nearly $50 million in coming years — an expense that might be passed to students.

The cost is high, they say, because additional officers, training, storage facilities and security technology would be needed.

About 850,000 Texans have concealed handgun licenses.

University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven has said he worries that concealed handguns will make campuses less safe because stress and guns are a bad mix. Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp has said he trusts students and professors so his university wouldn’t take a position on the issue.

A heated issue

Expanding gun rights in Texas has been controversial and headline gathering long before the first day of this year’s Legislative Session.

Emotions run high on this issue, growing in recent years. Supporters of the movement have taken to the streets — particularly in Tarrant County — with semiautomatic rifles and black powder pistols, which are legal to openly carry in Texas, hoping to draw attention to their cause.

Earlier this session, Kory Watkins, a leader of Tarrant County Open Carry, posted online a video some say threatened the safety of lawmakers who don’t support making it legal for Texans to openly carry their handguns.

That followed a dust-up earlier this session between local open-carry supporters and at least one lawmaker. State Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, indicated he doesn’t support open carry, and his staff asked Open Carry Tarrant County members to leave his office. There was an aggressive conversation; soon after that the House approved a measure making it easier for members to have panic buttons put in their offices.

Other issues

A last minute moment of disagreement came Sunday when House members were asked to approve a resolution to HB 3123 addressing the sunset review process that would have added a sunset review to the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley signed on to a letter asking lawmakers to not include NTTA in the bill, saying it “would remove local oversight of NTTA and could negatively impact its ability to make policy decisions that are fiscally responsible and accountable to the NTTA system and its 6.5 million customers.”

House members ultimately voted down a resolution that would have added NTTA to the bill. Republican state Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington were the Tarrant County members supporting the resolution.

Lawmakers also gave final approval to Capriglione’s bill to create a Texas Bullion Depository, where Texas could store its gold, which is now in New York, and where others could keep their precious metals.

The vote was 140-4, with state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, being one of the four opposing votes.

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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