AUSTIN, Texas - Texas is preparing to give college students and professors the right to carry guns on campus, adding momentum to a national campaign to open this part of society to firearms.
More than half the members of the Texas House have signed on as co-authors of a measure directing universities to allow concealed handguns. The Senate passed a similar bill in 2009 and is expected to do so again. Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who sometimes packs a pistol when he jogs, has said he's in favor of the idea.
Texas has become a prime battleground for the issue because of its gun culture and its size, with 38 public universities and more than 500,000 students. It would become the second state, following Utah, to pass such a broad-based law. Colorado gives colleges the option and several have allowed handguns.
Supporters of the legislation argue that gun violence on campuses, such as the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois in 2008, show that the best defense against a gunman is students who can shoot back.
"It's strictly a matter of self-defense," said state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio. "I don't ever want to see repeated on a Texas college campus what happened at Virginia Tech, where some deranged, suicidal madman goes into a building and is able to pick off totally defenseless kids like sitting ducks."
Students at the University of Houston joined the debate on Monday.
"When I turn 21, I want to have my license to hold a concealed handgun with me at all times," said Yesenia Chavez. "I would love to be able to take it to school to defend myself in cases where incidents do happen."
Fellow Cougar John Baudry does not support the measure.
"I do have a concealed handgun license and you do go through classes and what not, and you are qualified to handle a firearm,” Baudry said. “(But) I don't think a campus is anywhere to bring a gun. You never know (what could happen) if someone finds out you have it."
Stuart Worthington, another student, still hadn't formed an opinion.
"I think it's a touchy issue, period," he said. "Because one positive aspect (is) if someone wants to interact and save someone's life. If something is going wrong, then that's positive, but you've also go to think about the hot issues. If someone gets upset or tempted, it's a Catch 22."
Until the Virginia Tech incident, the worst college shooting in U.S. history occurred at the University of Texas, 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 before killing himself.
Similar firearms measures have been proposed in about a dozen other states, but all face strong opposition, especially from college leaders. In Oklahoma, all 25 public college and university presidents declared their opposition to a concealed carry proposal.
"There is no scenario where allowing concealed weapons on college campuses will do anything other than create a more dangerous environment for students, faculty, staff and visitors," Oklahoma Chancellor of Higher Education Glen Johnson said in January.
University of Texas President William Powers has opposed concealed handguns on campus, saying the mix of students, guns and campus parties is too volatile.
A spokesperson for the University of Houston said administrators would not be commenting on the proposal, but Darren Bush, an Associate Law Professor at UH said he had a lot of reasons against it.
"You're dealing with a group of students who are learning new things and sometimes the debates can be quite contentious. Does a gun add anything to that mix of information exchange that going on?," he asked. "A lot of the offenses on campus involve of alcohol and drugs and of course alcohol and guns don't mix. Looking at the types of crimes that occur on campus, I'm not convinced that guns would add anything to that mix. As well, quite personally I think there's a time when people are struggling for grades in a recession environment. I've personally nearly come to blows with a student over an A minus, and I'm not really sure a gun would add anything to that mix, except perhaps incline me to change that person's grade."
Guns occupy a special place in Texas culture. Politicians often tout owning a gun as essential to being Texan. Concealed handgun license holders are allowed to skip the metal detectors that scan Capitol visitors for guns, knives and other contraband.
Guns on campus bills have been rejected in 23 states since 2007, but gun control activists acknowledge it will be difficult to stop the Texas bill from passing this year. "Things do look bleak," said Colin Goddard, assistant director of federal legislation for the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, who was in Austin recently to lobby against the Texas bills.
Goddard was a student at Virginia Tech when he was shot four times in his French class. Student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, including 10 in Goddard's classroom, before shooting himself. Goddard dismisses the idea that another student with a gun could have stopped the killer.
"People tell me that if they would have been there, they would have shot that guy. That offends me," Goddard said. "People want to be the hero, I understand that. They play video games and they think they understand the reality. It's nothing like that."
But Derek Titus, a senior at Texas A&M who has a state license to carry a concealed handgun, said someone with a gun that day could have improved the chances of survival.
"Gun-free zones are shooting galleries for the mass murderers," Titus said. "We do not feel that we must rely on the police or security forces to defend our lives."
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.
Businesses, schools and churches can set rules banning guns on their premises. On college campuses, guns are prohibited in buildings, dorms and certain grounds around them.
Opponents of campus gun rights say students and faculty would live in fear of their classmates and colleagues, not knowing who might pull a gun over a poor grade, a broken romance or a drunken fraternity argument.
Frankie Shulkin, a first-year law student at the University of Texas, said he doesn't think he'd feel safer if other students in his classes had guns.
"If I was taking an exam and knew the person next to me had one, I don't know how comfortable I would feel," Shulkin said. "I am in favor of guns rights and your typical conservative guy, but the classroom thing bugs me."
Wentworth said he heard the "blood on the streets" warnings when Texas first passed the concealed handgun law. "They said we'd have shootouts at every intersection," he said. "None of that has happened."