AUSTIN, Texas - Legislation that would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons in college classrooms and buildings across Texas took its first step to becoming law Wednesday, as dozens of students, faculty and administrators testified before the bill was approved along party lines by a Republican-controlled committee in the state House of Representatives.
Supporters consider it a key gun-rights, self-defense measure to prevent violent campus crime such as the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Opponents, including some university and law enforcement officials, worry that students and faculty would live in fear of classmates and colleagues, not knowing who might pull a gun over a poor grade, broken romance or drunken argument.
Texas has become a prime battleground for a national campaign to open campuses to firearms because of its gun culture and the size of its university system, which includes 38 public colleges and more than 500,000 students. Similar firearms measures have been proposed in about a dozen other states, but all have faced strong opposition, especially from college leaders.
Texas would become the second state, following Utah, to pass such a broad-based law. Colorado gives colleges the option and several have allowed handguns.
"One wrong word could set off a temper," said Mickey Gressman, a student at Colin County Community College. "A lot of people say it's for self-defense. Let's just fire campus police if they're not doing their jobs and everybody has to start arming themselves. ... More guns is going to cause a lot more trouble."
The Texas Senate passed a guns-on-campus bill in 2009, but it died without a vote in the House. This year, more than half of the Republican-controlled House's 150 members have signed on as co-authors of one of the bills, and the issue is supported by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
The chancellor of the University of Texas system recently wrote Perry and state lawmakers, saying school administrators do not want guns on campus, fearing a rise in college suicides and violent confrontations.
Alice Tripp, lobbyist for the Texas State Rifle Association, which supports the bill, called college campuses "predator magnets" where violent crimes such as rape are underreported.
Until the Virginia Tech killings, the worst college shooting in U.S. history occurred at the University of Texas at Austin, when sniper Charles Whitman went to the top of the administration tower in 1966 and killed 16 people and wounded dozens. Last September, a University of Texas student fired several shots from an assault rifle on a campus street before killing himself.
Texas enacted its concealed handgun law in 1995, allowing people 21 or older to carry weapons if they pass a training course and a background check. The state had 461,724 license holders as of Dec. 31, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
Republican Rep. Joe Driver, author of House Bill 750, said the issue applies mostly to faculty, staff and parents because most students would be too young to qualify for a license. In 2010, only 7 percent of license holders in 2010 were between the ages of 21 and 25, Driver said.
"We're not talking about every student getting a gun," Driver said. "I did not file this bill so (license holders) could be heroes in mass-shooting situations. I filed this bill to allow (them) to be able to protect themselves."
But some lawmakers on the committee noted that students are staying in school longer and getting older, raising the percentage of students who would qualify for licenses.
A University of Texas at Austin student, Katherine Merriweather, said she was nearby when a student carried an assault rifle into a campus library and killed himself last year. The gunman was the only casualty.
"If another student had opened fire as a vigilante, I think the matter would have been worse with so many students in the library," she said.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo testified against the bill, citing the potential for chaos if someone does begin shooting on campus.
"When you think about 21-year-olds, responsibility is the last thing they are thinking about," Acevedo said. "Common sense says to me that guns on campus, like in bars, is not the right environment."
Driver's bill would keep a ban on guns in bars, churches, hospitals or athletic events on college campuses. It also would apply to private universities, but gives give them the option to ban concealed handguns after consulting with students, faculty, parents and law enforcement.