Which is scarier? Gun-toting college kids or Sid Miller naked?
The Stephenville Republican, who chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, inadvertantly begged the question when he comforted one nervous witness testifying before the committee. “They say when we’re nervous to picture us all naked,” he said. It wasn’t clear if that comforted the young man, one of around 200 witnesses to testify on controversial measures that would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons on university and community college campuses. In the end, the bill passed out of committee by a vote of five to three.
House Bill 750, introduced by state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, allows students, faculty, staff and visiting families with concealed handgun licenses to pack heat in all public university buildings. State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, and state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, both freshmen, laid bills almost identical to Driver’s. The bills allow private institutions to write their own rules when it comes to guns.
But despite the emotional tenor that concealed handgun legislation can generally elicit, the lawmakers were relatively sedate. Few besides Miller and state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, had any questions or comments for witnesses.
Meanwhile, the witnesses themselves had plenty to say. Those against the bills argued that allowing students to have guns while on campus would open the floodgates to more violence and suicides. Others, they said, might suddenly become student vigilantes against a criminal shooter, creating more confusion in an already chaotic situation. Some worried that students frustrated with a professor over a grade or upset over a breakup might act out with their weapon. Since the controversial bills were filed, university presidents and student groups have publicly denounced the legislation as well.
John Woods, a University of Texas at Austin doctoral student and Virginia Tech University graduate, recalled the fatal shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, telling the committee that more guns won’t mean a safer schools.
“If lawmakers want credibility on campus safety, they need to be part of the campus safety dialogue, listen to students, faculty,” he said. “These bills are about an ideological agenda not about campus safety.”
Mental heath and suicide prevention advocates urged lawmakers to consider the mental instability of some college students, emphasizing that suicide is the second biggest killer of college students.
“We know that access to lethal weapons increases risk of suicide, and college students also are not likely to spend the time needed practicing their shooting,” said Merily Keller with the Texas Suicide Prevention Council, urging committee members to allow universities to make their rules and regulations about concealed weapons or limit the scope to just allowing professors and staff to carry on campus. “I can support Second Amendment rights and be against these bills.”
Well, not according to the Second Amendment lovers. The predictable myriad of conservative groups were on sight—the Texas Eagle Forum, Texas College Republicans and Young Conservatives of Texas, just to name a few—making the case that allowing concealed weapons would better protect the university community and extend those beloved guns rights. Joining them were several graduate and doctoral students, most of whom said they work or take class at night, supporting the bills because they feel it would make their commutes and long walks to their cars at night safer.
Noe Perez, who teaches at the University of Texas in Brownsville, told the committee that the campus’ close proximity to the border presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for violence, and he would feel safer if he could protect himself while at school. Marie Kilian, a 51-year-old student at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, said she feels safer at a Walmart than her college classroom.
“In a classroom there’s no place for us to hide (if a gunman were to enter),” she said. “I have the right as a CHL holder to protect myself while I’m out shopping, having lunch with friends and jogging, however I’m denied where I’m most vulnerable – sitting in a classroom on a college campus.”
Adrienne O’Reilly, a former Texas A&M student and victim of campus assault, said that her only defense against her attacker would have been a gun.
“I’m licensed to carry everywhere in this state, including [the Capitol],” she said.
In defending their bills, the authors insisted that the legislation only applies to those with concealed handgun licenses, who are required by current law to be 21 years old, pass federal and state background checks and take a 10-hour instruction course. Approximately 400,000 Texans have concealed handgun licenses, and a very small percentage of those are of traditional college age, they said. Taylor told the committee that 71 campuses nationwide – mind you, only in two states—allow concealed weapons.
“We’re not talking about every student getting a gun, we’re talking about a minuscule number of people that would qualify,” said Driver. “The fact is we deny them the right to protect themselves.”
Individually, students pushed for and against the legislation, but collective college student voices were largely absent from today’s testimony—likely because the University of Texas and other major universities are on spring break this week.