Not long after seven individuals were fatally shot Monday on the campus of Oikos University, a small college in Oakland, Calif., discussions about college gun bans ramped up across the country. In Texas political circles, the debate is both déjà vu and a likely preview of what’s to come.
The wrangling over the hot-button issue of allowing concealed firearms on college campuses has roiled the Texas Capitol for multiple sessions and is likely to return in 2013.
The Oakland shooting occurred during the same week that Students for Concealed Carry, a national organization that advocates for legal concealed possession of firearms at colleges and universities, was holding an annual protest on campuses across the country. In Texas, the universities with the highest participation in the weeklong demonstration are Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University.
Students wore empty holsters to — as the organization explained in a Tuesday news release citing the Oakland tragedy — “illustrate their defenselessness at the hands of college gun bans.”
On Tuesday, representatives for the organization told The Texas Tribune that they expected a bill allowing students to carry concealed firearms in buildings on public college and university campuses in Texas to be filed again this coming session. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who carried the bill in the Senate last session, agreed. But, currently focused on his re-election effort, he doesn’t know if he will be filing the bill again.
“I haven’t made up my mind about that, but I’m certain, because there was overwhelming support in both the Senate and the House, that someone will file it and it will be debated vigorously next spring,” he said.
Two years ago, with Republican majorities in the Senate and House, where the majority of members signed on to the controversial “campus carry” bill, supporters of the bill assumed it would sail through. Instead its path was fraught with unexpected and, ultimately, insurmountable hurdles.
“Unfortunately, there was a misconception that our members and even our leaders had, as well as the general public,” said Adrienne O’Reilly, a 2010 graduate of Texas A&M University and the southwest regional director for Students for Concealed Carry. “They thought Texas was too big to fail.”
Ultimately, the legislation was hamstrung by arguments that its passage could cause insurance costs at universities to rise — an argument that supporters of the bill had not anticipated. This prompted two key Democratic senators to pull their support in a dramatic showdown on the Senate floor. Later efforts by Wentworth to attach the provision to a fiscal matters bill were also fruitless.
O’Reilly, whose interest in the issue intensified after she was assaulted on the A&M campus as a student, said that a firearm is “the only thing that will level the playing field between me and a male assailant.” She said she was hopeful of the bill’s chances this session.
Wentworth said that if he is a member and chooses not to carry the bill, other senators have already volunteered to be the author.
Meanwhile, one of the Capitol community’s most outspoken voices against campus carry legislation, John Woods, a student at Virginia Tech during its infamous 2007 school shooting and a graduate student at the University of Texas, questioned raising the issue on the heels of the Oakland shooting.
“This is a perfect example of politicization of a tragedy,” he said, noting that while the issue of campus carry is on his mind, he does not intend to worry about it too much until the elections have determined the makeup of the Legislature. “It’s too stressful.”
O’Reilly acknowledged that shootings like this week’s incident in Oakland are rare and not what she would consider the central focus of her organization. “It’s the everyday campus crime — the everyday rapes and murders and kidnappings — that occur on campus that we’re here for.” But she said of events like the Oakland shooting, “It’s something we point out. It’s another example of how gun-free zones don’t work.”
Woods called the revival of the debate “absurd,” and noted that college campuses are “some of the safest places in the country.” If the debate around guns on college campuses returns next session, Woods said, he hopes it can move beyond the issue of concealed carry.
“Even if we do have to talk about guns in classrooms,” he said, “I wish we could have a conversation about what we could be doing to make campuses safer outside of that issue. Unfortunately, this just sucks the oxygen out of the room for everything else and makes it hard to talk about keeping students from falling through the cracks, about access to counseling and mental health services.”