On a day when the nation’s strongest Second Amendment lobby group was gathered in Houston, the Texas House on Saturday tentatively approved a dozen pro-gun bills — including a highly controversial measure that would legalize concealed weapons in buildings on college campuses.
Another bill would thwart enforcement of new federal gun restrictions in Texas, a move intended to target firearms laws proposed by the Obama administration.
Saturday’s votes were on a wide array of legislation that would provide state training for new school marshals to protect students from shooting attacks, exempt concealed weapons licensees living in remote rural areas from electronic fingerprinting rules, allow for an inadvertent display of a concealed pistol, shorten the amount of classroom instruction required to obtain a concealed handgun permit and allow for renewal of handgun licenses on the Internet.
While most passed quickly with voice votes, disagreement erupted over the so-called campus carry bill and federal restrictions.
The first, House Bill 972, will allow concealed handgun licensees to carry handguns inside campus buildings — from dorms to classrooms to sporting arenas — unless a public school or university specifically prohibits it. Private schools would not have to allow them.
Under current law, concealed handguns are prohibited in campus buildings, though they are allowed on campus grounds. Universities can opt to allow concealed handguns on campus, as Texas A&M University has done, but few others have followed suit.
The change has faced strong opposition from officials at the University of Texas and other public colleges and universities, where officials fear it could promote violence.
Public hearings on the issue in recent months have been packed, with emotions running high on both sides.
“This primarily covers adults, faculty and employees,” said state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, the author of the bill. “It will not result in a large population of undergraduates carrying concealed weapons” on campus.
“The idea that this bill would result in increased violence is unfounded,” said Fletcher, a former police officer.
In all, he said, only about 9,300 of the state’s 584,000 handgun licensees are between the ages of 21 and 25 — and many of them are military veterans.
Opponents tried unsuccessfully five times to stop passage of the bill with parliamentary challenges. Amendments were also defeated that would have exempted universities within 75 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.
But when approval came, it was by voice vote, meaning that the representatives’ individual votes were not recorded. Saturday’s vote was followed by light applause and a standing ovation from several gun supporters sitting in the gallery. The vote also reportedly drew applause in Houston, where the National Rifle Association is holding its annual convention.
Despite the preliminary House approval — it must be voted on again before it is finally passed — the measure faces likely death in the Senate, where a similar bill has stalled in committee and where even supporters say they do not expect the upper chamber to approve it.
It was a different story two years ago, when the Senate approved campus carry after it was attached to a university spending bill in the final days of the legislative session. That measure died in the House.
Saturday was the first time in recent years that the campus carry measure has passed the lower chamber.
The Firearms Protection Act, HB 1076, was also approved on a voice vote after brisk debate over whether the measure was enforceable and constitutional.
The measure would prohibit the enforcement of any federal firearms restrictions on ownership, accessories and ammunition enacted after January 2013. State and local officers who do so could face a misdemeanor charge.
Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, the author, said the bill is necessary to prevent an erosion of Second Amendment rights through new edicts from Washington. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, disagreed, calling the measure “unenforceable and unconstitutional.”
“This bill is not about the Second Amendment; it’s about making a political statement,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who tried to attach an amendment to prohibit Attorney General Greg Abbott from using taxpayer money to defend the new law.
“This is a waste of state resources,” Turner said.
The House disagreed, tabling his amendment 82-33 and then passing the bill with a loud voice vote.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to say that private schools would not have to allow concealed handgun licensees to carry handguns inside campus buildings under House Bill 972.