UT president reluctantly permits concealed handguns in classrooms

Declaring that he doesn’t believe handguns belong on a college campus, the University of Texas president said Wednesday that he bowed to state law in concluding that concealed handguns must be permitted in classrooms. But President Gregory L. Fenves said he would ban guns for the most part from on-campus residence halls.

As expected, Fenves adopted the 25 recommendations of the Campus Carry Working Group, an advisory panel he appointed whose members included professors, staffers, students and a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

The UT president’s decision to allow people licensed to carry handguns to take their weapons into classrooms goes against the demands of the Faculty Council, various student organizations and a group called Gun Free UT that has threatened to sue. The university might also face litigation from concealed carry proponents who believe that the rules are too restrictive, including a provision that allows employees with private offices to prohibit handguns there.

“I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date,” said Fenves, who has led the Austin flagship campus since June 3. “I empathize with the many faculty members, staffers, students and parents of students who signed petitions, sent emails and letters, and organized to ban guns from campus and especially classrooms.

“However, as president, I have an obligation to uphold the law. Under the law, I cannot adopt a policy that has the general effect of excluding licensed concealed handguns from campus. I agree with the working group that a classroom exclusion would have this effect.”

State law has let holders of concealed handgun licenses carry concealed guns on the grounds of public colleges and universities since 1995. Senate Bill 11, passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, permits license holders to also carry concealed guns in campus buildings, subject to rules established by each college president after taking into account “the nature of the student population, specific safety considerations, and the uniqueness of the campus environment.”

A school’s governing board can amend the rules, provided it musters at least a two-thirds vote. The rules take effect Aug. 1 at universities and a year later at community colleges. Private colleges can opt out of campus carry, and virtually all are expected to do so. State law doesn’t allow handguns to be openly carried on college campuses.

Under Fenves’ policies, concealed carry will be banned in campus dorms with a few exceptions. Handguns will be permitted in common areas such as dining halls, lounges and study areas. A dorm resident’s family members are allowed to carry while visiting dorms, and staff members with handgun licenses may do so as well. Concealed carry will be allowed at university apartments, such as the Colorado and Brackenridge apartments in West Austin.

Fenves expressed confidence that the rules will pass legal muster, but a nonbinding legal opinion in December by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said campus dorms shouldn’t be off-limits to guns. Paxton said a provision in SB 11 allowing schools to establish rules concerning the storage of handguns in residence halls “presupposes their presence in dormitories.”

Students for Concealed Carry, a gun rights group, questioned a provision in the UT rules that requires a license holder carrying a semiautomatic handgun to do so without a chambered round of ammunition, as well as the provision letting some offices be declared gun-free zones.

“SCC is confident that the university’s gun-free-offices policy and empty-chamber policy will not stand up to legal scrutiny; therefore, our Texas chapter will now shift its focus to litigation,” the group said in a statement that also called for the matter to be taken up in a special legislative session.

The prospect of concealed handguns in classrooms has generated the most controversy on campus. Joan Neuberger, a history professor and a Gun Free UT leader, said she was outraged that Fenves and UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven “interpreted their right to make decisions at my university so narrowly that they felt they could not allow us to ban guns in our classrooms.”

“We’re still considering our options. We haven’t made any decisions. But we’re talking to lawyers,” Neuberger said.

Notwithstanding the Faculty Council’s opposition to concealed handguns in classrooms, the council’s chairwoman, Andrea Gore, a pharmacy professor, said Fenves got it right. A ban on guns in classrooms would be “such a flagrant violation of the law,” she said.

Some of UT’s rules, such as provisions barring guns in certain laboratories and patient-care areas, will require additional work to flesh out. That’s because officials will have to decide on a building-by-building basis whether to make a room, a floor or the entire building a gun-exclusion zone, said Steven Goode, a UT law professor who chaired the advisory panel. Fenves has established a task force led by a campus safety and security officials to work out such details.

Under state law, a person found guilty of intentionally carrying a concealed handgun in a prohibited area on a campus could be jailed for up to a year and fined up to $4,000.

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