Texas Legislature Gun Show Comes to a Close

Thanks to late-stage maneuvering by the Texas Legislature this year, soon you’ll be able to openly carry a handgun, and campus-carry a handgun, but you generally can’t openly carry your handgun on campus. Except if you want to openly carry your handgun as you stroll through the greenspaces of a public university, that will be allowed. But if you want to take your glock into a biocontainment lab or the university chapel? Sorry, probably still verboten—openly or concealed. And private universities? Forget it. They can still ban guns totally, just like other private properties. 

Got all that? Good, because it took legislators long enough to figure it out. On Sunday, just one day before the close of the 84th legislative session, the House approved the final version of Senate Bill 11, the contentious “campus carry” legislation that passed the Senate just the day before. In its current form, the bill allows anyone with a handgun license to carry a concealed handgun in most areas on public or private universities. Public universities can prohibit guns in specific zones, and private universities can opt out entirely. In the case of public universities, open spaces not restricted to students and faculty must allow concealed carry, as that is considered “public” property. SB 11 takes effect August 1, 2016, while community colleges have an extra year to comply.

While the bill had largely been predicted to zoom through the conservative-leaning legislature despite vehement opposition from gun safety advocates and a lack of support from most universities in the state, it hit hurdles last week that threatened to block the law entirely. Last Tuesday, what we termed a “marathon session” in the House—including more than 100 amendments proposed by Democrats to state Senator Brian Birdwell’s version of the campus carry bill—ended only when Dems abruptly ended their opposition minutes away from a midnight deadline. Part of the agreement was the acceptance of an amendment by state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) that would have prevented private universities from opting out of campus carry. 

Martinez Fischer had hoped this would bring out even stronger oppositional pressure from private institutions. What it really did, likely also part of rulemeister Martinez Fischer’s plan, was cause state Sen. Birdwell not to concur with the House changes on Thursday afternoon, due to Birdwell’s “strong stance” on property rights, sending the bill to a conference committee with hours ticking down until the end of the entire session.

The post-conference committee SB11 that returned to the Senate on Saturday was stripped of the private university inclusion amendment. It was also, like a previous version, considered “watered down” by some gun rights advocates because it allowed public university presidents, in consultation with staff and the student body, to designate specific gun-free zones. But the new SB 11 worked itself into knots to assure that universities couldn’t just effectively label all buildings gun-free zones. Instead, the universities will have to submit to two legislative interim committees a biannual report on which buildings it prefers gun-free, and why. The university’s board of regents could also overturn any such designations with a two-thirds vote. 

All of this seems like an awful lot of work for public universities all of a sudden, especially since, due to current handgun licensing being available only to those 21 years and older, this law really applies to a minority of university students. Of course, the other thing de facto banned to college students under age 21 is alcohol, and we all know how well that’s observed on campus by minors. 

While conceding that the post-conference committee bill was, as state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) called it “an itsy-bitsy piece of improvement” on the initial campus carry legislation, opponents remained steadfast — although, to be honest, some of their arguments did verge on the ridiculous. Houston Rep. Alma Allen worried that her grandson would arrive at college as a freshman “greeted with an entourage of guns” and there were numerous references made to lovers’ quarrels gone wrong, as if 21 year-olds were more susceptible to those scenarios than other adults. Then again, House sponsor Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) made some pretty bad examples himself in introducing the new and improved SB 11, worrying that without such legislation people already allowed to concealed-carry their pistol on the walk from their car to their classroom would then be “forced” to commit a felony by bringing it into the building with them. All because they wanted to protect themselves on those harrowing walks to and from their 10 a.m. physics lab!

Most ridiculous is the law itself, which supersedes the newly passed open carry legislation. When these laws go into full effect, you can carry your handgun to a playground in a public park openly, but it will need to remain concealed around most parts of a college campus. Though both campus carry and open carry ran into major hurdles, such as being opposed by a significant stakeholder (universities against campus carry and law enforcement against open carry), with the Republican majorities and a staunch gun rights enthusiast in the governor’s mansion, neither bill was really expected to fail. In fact both passed along party lines with huge majorities. All this campus carry bill really does is pave the way for a similar bill allowing open carry on campus next session, likely in lieu of substantive discussion on bills addressing other areas of higher education. “Texas has to get past its obsession with guns!” exclaimed outgoing state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) during the floor debate on Sunday, “And start placing resources on students and institutions.” 

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Callie Enlow