Two major gun bills got their first real test today, as a Senate committee heard testimony from more than 100 people on the wisdom of Senate Bill 11, which would allow holders of concealed handgun licenses to pack heat on college campuses, and Senate Bill 17, which would allow CHL holders to carry handguns openly in public. The bills passed out of the committee on a 7-2 vote, along party lines.
Gun rights legislation has been at the center of one of the weirdest circuses of the session so far. Bad behavior on the part of open carry advocates and a misstep by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick put the future of open carry in doubt, but the Senate set the legislation on a fast path to passage, hoping to reassure angry activists that have demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender from anyone who deviates from the party line. A significant portion of today’s debate focused on campus carry, even though it’s open carry that has seized most of the headlines recently. Both seem assured to eventually pass the Senate.
The chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), seemed eager to get the two bills out of her committee—it’s unusual to vote on a bill on the day of its first hearing, but that’s what happened.
Was that because Huffman loved the bills, or because she wanted to wash her hands of them? Either way, the bills can’t be considered on the floor until the 60th day of the session—which falls on March 13—unless Gov. Greg Abbott declares the gun bills an emergency priority. So there’s not a clear reason for the rush.
Introducing his bill, state Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) concentrated his fire on critics of campus carry. Adopting a blustery style that one observer compared to a Cormac McCarthy character, Birdwell was a font of quotes: “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six,” he told Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was against Birdwell’s bill. When UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven’s position on campus carry was mentioned—he’s a former special operations commander who has strongly opposed guns on UT campuses—Birdwell said that once McRaven was given his marching orders from the Lege, “I expect the chancellor to salute and move out.”
When state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-San Antonio), one of only two Democrats on the nine-member committee, spoke about the risk of having loaded guns on college campuses, Birdwell tersely replied: “I’ve found unloaded weapons very un-useful, ma’am.” When Zaffirini asked why Birdwell’s bill wouldn’t let universities opt out of the gun law, Birdwell responded that college administrators didn’t have the right to meddle in the “rights that are granted from God,” which fall to the Legislature to protect.
Anti-gun groups, according to emails they released on social media, were told by Birdwell’s staff that there would be no invited testimony at the hearing. But there was, and it came exclusively from pro-gun groups (most notably from the NRA’s top regional lobbyist). That’s happened before—groups that don’t support expanding gun rights are almost never given equal footing with those that do at the Lege.
University chancellors like former state Sen. Robert Duncan, now the chancellor of the Texas Tech System, were allotted only brief comment periods, or had their comments read aloud. Duncan, in his characteristic style, stayed neutral on the bill, but suggested a few amendments for safety’s sake, like banning guns in medical clinics.
A letter from McRaven, read aloud, stressed that many mental health officials who work with college students are very uneasy about the prospect of more guns on campus: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and easier access to guns on campus might make suicide even more common. John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said he could not “speak to the effect that campus carry will have on other institutions, but it does not raise safety concerns for me.” But he emphasized that campus carry wasn’t an A&M priority.
Many came to spoke against campus carry, including a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre, Colin Goddard, who asked legislators not to use the incident to justify the bill. And there were several survivors of the 1966 UT Tower shooting, including Ruth Heide Claire James, formerly Claire Wilson, who began her testimony with a jarring declaration: “I was the first one shot in the Whitman massacre.”
Wilson was 18 when the shooting happened, and pregnant, and Whitman killed her unborn child and 18-year-old boyfriend. She lay bleeding in view of the Tower for some 90 minutes until she was rescued. Today, she said that gunfire from well-meaning civilians, causing confusion, was one of the reasons she wasn’t rescued earlier.
State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), also had a connection to the shooting—his father, he said, had been carrying a scoped rifle that day, and police had instructed him to fire at Whitman.
Today’s hearing also covered what state Sen. Craig Estes jokingly called “a less controversial bill,” SB 17. Estes, the bill’s author, called on Texas “to boldly go where 46 other states have already gone” and pass a law authorizing the open carry of handguns.
But he didn’t say all that much about the bill, leaving it to the public to argue for and against it. Open carry activists want what they call “constitutional carry,” meaning that any member of the public could carry a gun in public without a license. Estes’ bill falls short of that, and they don’t like it.
Angela Rabke of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control group founded after the Sandy Hook massacre, talked about the harassment her group has received from open carry activists; in the overflow room, some of the activists laughed at her. Shortly after she began discussing the “near-constant threats of sexual violence” she’d had to contend with, her time ran out.
Next to her sat Kory Watkins, the leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, who has gotten into his fair share of trouble lately. If he failed to win the right to carry a handgun, and if the Legislature chose “to go against my God-given rights,” he said, “I will continue to walk around with an AK-47.” And he would “walk around until my feet bleed to make sure you’re never an elected official again,” he told the panel.
There were quite a few other sideshow moments. One man compared gun licenses to the yellow stars Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany.
But most witnesses on both sides were respectful and earnest. In the past, gun hearings like this have been overwhelmingly populated by gun rights activists. This time, the balance was closer to even. Those who oppose expanding gun rights are starting to turn out in more serious numbers.
Will that matter at the Lege? Probably not for now: The bills discussed today are on a trajectory to easy passage, at least in the Senate, even if they may have to wait over a month. But public pressure could be meaningful as the weeks go on and the rest of the Legislature considers making changes.