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UT campus carry panel’s gun recommendations prompt lawsuit threat

Despite widespread opposition on the University of Texas campus to guns in classrooms, a university panel on Thursday recommended against designating UT classrooms gun-free zones.

The Campus Carry Policy Working Group, composed chiefly of university faculty members, students and staffers, made that recommendation reluctantly as part of a suite of suggestions about how campus officials should implement Senate Bill 11, a new state law that allows students to carry concealed handguns in buildings on public university campuses.

The panel’s recommendations came two days before a controversial mock mass shooting, using UT as a backdrop, planned for Saturday by gun rights groups. That demonstration, using cardboard guns and fake blood, aims to draw attention to the groups’ opposition to gun-free zones, which the groups say jeopardize safety.

“This week, we have heard disturbing reports about a non-university group’s efforts to simulate gun violence against members of the UT community,” UT President Gregory L. Fenves said in a statement. “Such attitudes have no place at UT and they reinforce my deep concerns about SB 11 and the potential impact that handguns will have on campus.”

“However,” he added, “I have a responsibility to implement the law and will do so in a way that addresses the safety of our community.”

The organization Gun Free UT issued a statement opposing the working group recommendations and threatening to file a lawsuit.

“The purpose of the university is education and the creation of new knowledge,” said its statement. “Allowing guns in the classroom undermines that purpose by chilling free speech and infringing on academic freedom. The report has utterly failed to recommend policies that will protect these treasured traditions. We will defend our First Amendment rights by every legal means possible.”

The law takes effect Aug. 1 and says that a person who holds a concealed handgun license may carry a pistol – concealed – both on the grounds and in the buildings of an institution of higher education.

The working group estimates that less than 1 percent of UT students will have a license to carry a concealed weapon, in part because the state requires a license holder to be 21 years or older.

“The Working Group is aware of, and sympathetic to, the overwhelming sentiment on campus that concealed carry should not be permitted in classrooms,” says the report, noting that every panel member thinks guns in classrooms are a bad idea. “Nevertheless, the Working Group does not recommend that classrooms should be designated a gun-exclusion zone.”

That’s because excluding handguns from classrooms would keep licensed gun owners from carrying their pistols on campus and would effectively violate the law, the panel wrote.

“The only possible way to avoid this result would be for the University to provide gun lockers at strategic points around campus,” the panel wrote. “We believe that this would be an extremely ill-advised measure, and we cannot recommend it.”

Forcing students to store the weapons on campus when they go to class would create more risk of accidents, the group concluded: “It is all-too easy to imagine that there will be days when a license holder is running a bit late and thus will be less cautious in storing the handgun.”

Opponents of guns on campus said they were disappointed with that recommendation.

The university panel “is clearly not working for the UT community,” said Michael Barnes, legislative affairs director of the UT Graduate Student Assembly.

“We believe that preserving our unique campus environment — one in which academic discourse is not stifled by the presence of weapons — is worth the effort required to overcome a few logistical challenges,” he said.

More than 1,700 students in UT graduate and professional programs have signed a petition opposing guns in classrooms. An additional 1,300 UT professors and 100 staff members have publicly stated opposition to guns in classrooms.

Those in favor of campus carry say opponents at UT are overreacting, and they point to universities that have already complied with similar laws as proof. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, campus carry has been in effect since 2012. It is no longer a topic of debate on campus, and there has been one report of a problem: an accidental discharge at a university medical facility when a staff member took out her gun to show it to colleagues.

A task force at Texas State University in San Marcos has proposed allowing concealed handguns in the vast majority of campus classrooms, with exemptions for areas where students are counseled or children visit campus.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, an author of SB 11 and chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, said the UT proposals “are a good place to start, and I think they’ve been derived very thoughtfully.”

The UT panel recommended prohibiting guns in a few places, including areas such as the UT Elementary School or any area where an activity for K-12 children is taking place.

Among the panel’s other recommendations:

• Faculty and staff members who have offices can decide whether they want to allow students to carry concealed weapons into their offices.

• Guns should generally be banned from dormitories, but parents with licensed concealed handguns should be allowed to carry their pistols in dorms.

• Guns should be allowed in common areas, such as lounges, dining areas and study areas.

“We have tried to address people’s fears to the extent we can, and to ensure campus safety and security and comply with the law,” said Steven Goode, a UT law professor who chaired the committee.

Fenves will lean on the recommendations as he develops rules for implementing the law on campus.

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