AUSTIN, Texas - Republicans in the Texas Senate on Monday approved allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry weapons into public college buildings and classrooms, moving forward on a measure that had stalled until supporters tacked it on to a universities spending bill.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, had been unable to muster the votes he needed under Senate rules to pass the issue as its own bill after the measure met stiff resistance from higher education officials, notably from within the University of Texas system.
The measure seemed all but assured easy passage when the legislative session began in January. The Senate had passed a similar bill in 2009 and about 90 lawmakers in the 150-member House had signed on in support this year. But the bill stalled on its first three votes in the Senate and took some maneuvering by Wentworth to get it through.
Supporters hope Monday's vote will help shove the measure past a roadblock in the House, where a similar bill has been stuck without a vote in that chamber with just a few weeks left in the legislative session.
"Campus carry has more momentum than a runaway freight train," said W. Scott Lewis of Students for Concealed Carry, a nationwide group backing the measure.
The Senate's 12 Democrats had mostly worked as a block to stop the measure but were powerless to stop it on Monday when all it took was a simple majority in the 31-member chamber to get it added to the spending bill as an amendment.
At that point, Wentworth even picked up an extra vote from Rep. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who had previously opposed the measure.
Even with large numbers in support, the campus guns measure quickly boiled into one of most controversial issues of the session.
Supporters call it a critical self-defense measure and guns rights issue. UT-System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa wrote lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry outlining worries from university officials that guns on campus will lead to more campus crime and suicides.
Hearings on the measure were dominated by powerful testimony from supporters who had been raped or assaulted on college campuses, and several people who had survived the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech University when a gunman killed 32 people.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who was a student at the University of Texas in 1966 when sniper Charles Whitman killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others, vigorously argued against the guns measure.
She predicted mass chaos if police respond to a call and find several people with guns drawn.
"I can't imagine the horrors if this passes," Zaffirini said.
Wentworth was unmoved. He recalled the shooting at Virginia Tech and said he wants to give students a chance to defend themselves.
"There was no one there to defend themselves in a gun-free zone that was a victim-rich zone," Wentworth said. "I'm trying to avoid that type of situation."
Ironically, it was an amendment by Zaffirini that opened the door for Wentworth's gun measure. Those two had battled in previous weeks when Wentworth tried to amend the guns measure to another universities spending bill she had authored.
She withdrew her bill but offered it up as an amendment on Monday. Minutes after hers was approved, Wentworth introduced his amendment and got the guns measure put on the bill.
After the vote, Wentworth exchanged a few imaginary shots with another lawmaker outside the Senators-only lounge behind the chamber.
Texas passed its concealed handgun license law in 1995. License holders must be at least 21 and pass a training course.
Guns on campus bills have been rejected in at least 23 states since 2007. The bill originally covered private universities as well, but was changed to cover only public institutions of higher education. The Senate also rejected attempts to allow the university boards of regents to decide gun policy on their campuses.
For supporters, Texas is the big prize. Early signs the bill would pass here captured the attention of international media which could not resists the state's larger-than-life reputation and frontier image.
Texas is where concealed handgun license holders are allowed to skip metal detectors in the state Capitol, and Perry made headlines for shooting a coyote on a morning jog last year. Earlier on Monday, senators voted to allow themselves to carry concealed handguns into places the rest of the public cannot, such as churches, restaurants and sporting events.
Perry has said he supports the campus guns measure and is expected to sign it into law if it reaches his desk.