AUSTIN, Texas – A bill to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons into Texas college buildings and classrooms got a significant boost in the state Senate on Tuesday, but it remains unclear if it has enough momentum to become law.
Even if it does, the bill has been scaled back to the point that even key supporters question whether most campuses will move to keep guns out.
The issue has failed in previous sessions and appeared destined for a similar fate until just a few weeks ago.
But the House passed a version that lifts the statewide ban on guns at school while still allowing individual campuses to ban weapons. A Senate panel endorsed the same bill on Tuesday sending it to the full Senate for consideration.
The change to give schools more control over their campuses was designed to soften opposition from higher education officials, notably the University of Texas System, and law enforcement agencies that worry allowing guns will lead to more campus violence and suicide.
Supporters of the bill say the compromise measure, while not what they wanted, is one they can live with and hope the bill will break through the Senate before the session ends May 27.
"I will take what I can get," said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. "Swing for the fences, but be happy with first base."
The House voted to approve the bill on May 6, prompting Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to schedule Tuesday's public hearing just a couple of weeks after he declared the issue dead this session. The committee passed the bill on to the entire Senate with a 4-2 vote.
The bill's fate in the full chamber remains unknown and supporters were cautious about predicting it will pass.
Republicans hold a 19-12 majority and approved a broader version of the bill in 2011. But Senate rules still require at least 21 members to vote to bring a bill up for debate. Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the bill may not have the support to pass the Senate.
"There's still significant heartburn," even with the changes, Watson said.
Texas has more than 500,000 concealed handgun license holders who must be 21 years old and pass a training course. They can carry their weapons in most public places, including the state Capitol, but state law also carves out several "no gun" zones, including campuses of higher education.
Several instances of shootings at college campuses, such as the one at Virginia Tech in 2007, prompted a wave of efforts in Texas and nationwide to allow guns. Supporters, including the Texas Rifle Association, call it a gun rights issue and say they should be allowed to defend themselves and others in case of a campus shooter. They also note Texas Department of Public Safety statistics that show concealed handgun license holders in 2011 had a drastically lower rate of committing crimes than the general population.
In March, University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Perry saying students, parents and faculty worry letting guns into classrooms will make campus less safe. Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, chief author of the bill in the Senate, said it's likely many campuses will continue to ban weapons.
The bill would require public universities to renew their gun policies every year after taking input from faculty, staff and students. Private universities would be allowed to opt in to allowing weapons on campus.
"There will be some that still won't allow them," Birdwell said. "But at least we've begun the conversation instead of getting nowhere with it."
Birdwell said if he can get the bill passed, campus-carry supporters may try to eventually eliminate the campus ban on guns altogether.
"There may be a comfort level after two or four years of this being in place, universities will say there's not a problem here," Birdwell said. "But that's for next session or the session after that."