Fast-tracking two high-profile gun bills, a Senate committee approved campus carry and open carry legislation Thursday evening after a marathon public hearing punctuated by passionate testimony from more than 100 witnesses.
The Senate State Affairs Committee considered and adopted only one amendment — changing the campus carry bill to clarify that, even if an open carry bill becomes law, gun owners would be allowed only to carry concealed handguns at the state’s colleges and universities.
The party-line votes to send the bills to the full Senate came after the panel’s two Democrats, state Sens. Rodney Ellis of Houston and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, agreed to pull more than a dozen proposed amendments, electing to offer them later on the Senate floor.
The hearing ended nine hours after it had begun and more than 10 hours after the first witnesses began lining up outside the small hearing room in the Capitol Extension.
Shooting victims, gun owners, students, police and parents pressed committee members to pass, reject or change bills that have become a Republican priority and dominated the early weeks of the 140-day legislative session.
Senate Bill 11, co-authored by 19 GOP senators, would allow those with a concealed handgun license to carry a weapon into buildings on all state colleges and universities, but allowing private and independent schools to restrict guns on their campuses as a nod to private property rights.
Current law allows concealed guns only on campus grounds.
Senate Bill 17 would allow those with concealed handgun permits to openly carry holstered firearms. The bill would let business owners forbid holstered handguns on their premises by displaying a sign at every entrance, also a nod to property rights.
Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, introduced his open carry bill by noting that Texas is among only six states that completely ban residents from openly carrying handguns. “I am asking this legislative body to boldly go where 44 other states have already gone,” he said.
Many gun advocates, arguing that the bill didn’t go far enough in expanding gun rights, urged senators to drop the concealed handgun license requirement and allow what they called constitutional carry.
Kory Watkins with Open Carry Tarrant County, who released a Facebook video last week that many interpreted as threatening to legislators who oppose loosened gun laws, testified that he shouldn’t have to have a concealed handgun permit to carry his gun, equating it to having to ask permission, pay a tax or get fingerprinted “just like criminals.”
“I will walk until my feet bleed to make sure you are never an elected official again,” Watkins told opponents of constitutional carry.
Many gun advocates argued that weapons on campus would enhance safety, allowing otherwise helpless students and teachers to face down threats in the classroom or after class while walking home or to their cars.
John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, submitted a letter saying he has no safety concerns with campus carry, adding that he has faith in students, faculty and staff to follow law.
But others said guns shattered the sense of safety on campuses, including Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who said guns were “the last thing needed” in a campus atmosphere of heavy drinking, volatile mental health and too-high suicide rates.
Claire Wilson, the first person shot from the University of Texas Tower by Charles Whitman in 1966, said campuses are no places for guns.
“I think there’s got to be a better way than having guns on campus to address the issues we have as a society,” said Wilson, who lost a pregnancy and her boyfriend to Whitman.
Colin Goddard, who was shot four times at the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 people dead, asked supporters to stop using that massacre to promote campus carry.
Arming students isn’t a good idea, Goddard said. “We are not going to shoot our way out of problems on college campuses,” he said.
Zaffirini asked why Republicans, who are strong supporters of local control in educational decisions, wouldn’t allow state university regents to opt out of campus carry.
The reason is found in the U.S. and Texas constitutions’ guarantee of gun ownership rights, said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, chief author of the campus carry bill.
“Rights that are granted by God are ours to protect. They are not to be delegated … to boards of regents,” Birdwell said.
Committees in the House, where more than a half-dozen similar gun bills have been filed, haven’t yet begun their work, giving both sides future opportunities to state their cases.