AUSTIN - Gun rights advocates hit the bullseye Thursday when a Senate committee approved a bill allowing concealed handguns to be carried on public college campuses.
The fast-tracked bill - the first reported out of any Legislative committee this session - passed 7-2 alongside a measure allowing open carry of holstered sidearms.
The only no votes came from Democrats.
A day-long hearing on the bills drew testimony from about 100 people, including the Austin police chief and the Harris County sheriff, both of whom spoke against open carry.
The heads of Texas' two biggest university systems did not appear, but their opposition to allowing license holders to carry concealed handguns on campus were noted.
University of Texas Chancellor William McRaven, a former Navy admiral who oversaw the special forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden, has opposed campus carry, saying it makes colleges and universities less safe.
In a letter to the governor, McRaven said mixing guns and stressed-out students, away from home at a young age, could mean more accidental shootings and suicides.
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said in a letter that his key concern is financing higher education - not guns on campus.
“The real question is this: Do I trust my students, faculty and staff to work and live responsibility under the same laws at the university as they do at home? Of course I do!” Sharp wrote. “However, properly funding the higher education of these students is the only issue that counts!”
Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting and senior policy advocate for Everytown for Gun Safety, testified against campus carry after several witnesses evoked deadly school killings as a rationale to allow guns on campus as a defensive measure.
“I ask to please not use the shooting at Virginia Tech as justification for a bill like this. We are not going to shoot our way out of problems on our campuses," Goddard said. During the April 2007 attack, a senior killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on campus before killing himself.
Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who authored the campus carry bill, told colleagues that private universities may opt out. Handguns will continue to be prohibited from hospitals, pre-schools, kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools on college campuses.
This is Birdwell’s second time to lead a campus-carry bill.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said his colleagues across the state "in very large measure oppose" the open cary bill, which is supported by a small but vocal minority.
Violent crime rates continue to drop, he noted, before reminding lawmakers of a question about open carry posed by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston: “What are we trying to fix?"
"I think that's a great question," said Acevedo.
As for someone’s comment that Oklahoma has also passed open-carry, he said, “I never thought I’d see the day that we’d be looking at Oklahoma for leadership.”
Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who wrote the open-carry bill, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, drew laughs in an exchange in which Estes explained the 19th-century roots of open-carry restrictions in Texas.
Estes said the prohibition was, in part, racially motivated. It dated to Reconstruction, he said, and was created by white lawmakers allowing their friends in law enforcement to arm themselves and "arrest their enemies."
“We’re trying to right an ancient wrong,” said Estes.
Replied Ellis, who is African American: “Was that pretty much when the Klan was controlling things in Texas? I guess I’d agree with the Klan on that one issue.”
Under an amendment, accepted by Birdwell, campus carry would continue to be concealed if open carry becomes law.
The bills could go to the Senate floor in about three weeks.