Dodging a Bullet

Texas lawmakers fail to pass a controversial bill, previously seen as a sure thing, that would have let people carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
June 1, 2011

State legislators in Texas could not meet Monday's end-of-session deadline to pass a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons on campus -- meaning a win for higher education leaders, who almost uniformly opposed the legislation.

Failure to pass the bill, which was characterized as "poised to pass" and "a slam dunk" when it was introduced and debated, probably keeps the issue off the table until after the 2012 election; the Legislature reconvenes for a new session in 2013. While the governor reconstituted the Legislature for a special session Tuesday to handle unfinished legislation, it is unlikely that the controversial bill will be considered.

While the bill seemed to have public support from enough lawmakers to become law -- including the governor, two-thirds of the Senate, and 88 co-sponsors in the 150-member House of Representatives -- it hit several procedural roadblocks and could not find its way to the governor's desk. This is the second time the measure has failed in Texas.

Opponents of the bill said they had scored a major victory and that this year's debate opened lawmakers' eyes to what they see as widespread public opposition to a dangerous idea. Proponents of the measure, who argue that responsible, armed students (and others) can make campuses safer and help prevent shootings like the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, said they had sufficient support but ran into opposition from a few key lawmakers, and that they will continue to push the issue.

"The support was there," said State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a Republican from San Antonio and the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate. "But if you don't have the right support, there's nothing you can do."

The bill, which came before the Legislature in 2009 but failed to pass, would have allowed owners of concealed weapons licenses to carry guns on public university campuses. It coincided with efforts to pass similar laws in about a dozen other states.

Because its passage seemed inevitable for a while, it gathered significant public attention. State higher education leaders, including the chancellor of the University of Texas system, campus safety officials, and faculty members, were vocal in their opposition. And student groups on each side of the issue made the bill's passage or defeat their top priority.

But despite Texas lawmakers' historic support for loosening handgun restrictions, the measure could not gather momentum.

When the bill was first considered in the Senate's criminal justice committee, it failed to get the necessary two-thirds support, a requirement in the Texas Senate. Wentworth then attached the measure to a bill to reform university financing that was already on the Senate floor; it passed in May with support from about two-thirds of the chamber. When it got to the House, however, the amendment was ruled to be unrelated to the original bill and stripped. It was not resurrected after that.

John Woods, a graduate student at the University of Texas and a member of Students for Gun-Free Schools, speculated that the measure might have failed, despite apparently wide support among legislators, because some lawmakers held private concerns.

"A lot of people in Texas are afraid of the [National Rifle Association] and will sign on to legislation because that can make them more likely to get endorsed," he said. "But in reality they don't want the legislation to come to the floor and will work in the background to keep that from happening. If it came to the floor, they would likely vote for it, but they'll do everything in their power to keep that from happening."

Wentworth said that the bill, because of its overwhelming support in both chambers, will probably be brought up in two years, whether or not he is in the Legislature.

Woods noted that a lot could change between now and 2013, and that there's a chance the concealed carry law could be less of an issue next time around. For one thing, he said, there will be another election and likely some turnover in seats. People are much more aware of the opposition of higher education officials to the bill. Also, he said, the Texas legislative system doesn't like seeing the same bill multiple times.

"They say, 'Once you've killed a bill, it becomes much harder to pass it later,' " Woods said. "We've killed this one twice." He did note, however, that the fight had been much tougher this time around.


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