Danielle Vabner woke up one Friday morning in her freshman dorm room to an onslaught of missed calls from her mother. A shooter had opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Vabner's three siblings attended. It was unclear if they had been hurt, and Vabner immediately hitched a ride back to Newtown, Connecticut. In the car, she got an update: Her 6-year-old brother, Noah Pozner, had been killed. He was the youngest of 20 child victims.
"It was so out of the blue and tragic, I was in shock," Vabner recalled recently, sitting in a food court at the University of Texas at Austin, where she transferred to try to recover after the shooting. But the specter of gun violence has followed Vabner to her new state, thanks to a push by Texas lawmakers to allow students tote firearms on college campuses. "It's another tragedy waiting to happen on campus, and we're here to feel safe and to study," Vabner told me. "I came here to heal."
The Texas state legislature is moving forward on a bill that would reverse the strict ban on concealed weapons at state universities, allowing gun owners with concealed-carry permits to carry their firearms around campus. The legislation is expected to clear the state Senate next week, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has promised to expedite its passage. "Regarding the Second Amendment, our first priority is to pass campus carry this session," he wrote in a recent Facebook post. "I am an avid gun owner, was endorsed by the NRA with an 'A rating,' and have a 100% voting record on second amendment issues for over 8 years."
But even in a solidly pro-gun state like Texas, the idea of letting coeds loose campus with hidden firearms remains deeply divisive. A poll released by the Texas Tribune last month found that voters are split evenly on issue, with 47 percent in favor of the campus carry bill, and 45 percent opposed. The bill has sparked an emotional debate in the state, pitting gun control activists and gun violence victims like Vabner against guns rights activists like NRA poster child Amanda Collins, who argue that licensed concealed weapons are a safeguard against assaults and violent crime.
In a video for NRA News, Collins explains that because of campus rules, she wasn't carrying her Glock on the night she was raped in a parking lot at the University of Nevada in 2007. "There is no doubt in my mind that if I had been carrying that night, I would have been able to stop that attack," she says. "This is a real issue that, when some people, when they're not given a right to protect themselves, they get hurt. It didn't just happen to me."
Texas' education and law enforcement leaders have spoken out against the bill. In a recent letter to Texas lawmakers, University of Texas Chancellor Bill McRaven, a former Navy SEAL, came out against the legislation, arguing that would create a "less safe environment" on the system's campuses. A recent survey of the Texas Police Chiefs Union found that most members oppose allowing concealed weapons on campuses. At UT Austin, faculty and students have voiced loud opposition to the new legislation.
University officials also claim that the bill would come with a hefty price tag for Texas' higher education institutions. According to a UT fiscal analysis provided to me by the university press office, campus carry would cost the system more than $39 million over six years, requiring the schools to put funds toward security upgrades, personnel training, and new systems to track licensed gun carriers on campuses. Teaching hospitals would bear the brunt of the cost, said UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo; Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center alone would have to spend a whopping $22 million on new security measures, thanks to the high volume of new visitors coming in and out of the hospital.
Proponents of campus carry have questioned these numbers, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, arguing that the Texas bill does not require schools to take additional security measures, and that it would not affect laws barring guns from hospitals.
If the bill passes, Texas will have one of the laxest campus gun policies in the nation, joining Utah as the only states that explicitly forbid public universities from putting any limits on where people can take their guns. Just seven states allow concealed weapons at public universities. But the campus carry movement has gained momentum in recent years, thanks to NRA-backed efforts to promote firearms as the answer to campus violence. At least 15 states are currently considering campus carry laws.
Gun control activists have scrambled to push back against the campus carry movement, and accuse the NRA and other groups of preying on public concerns about violent crime at colleges and universities. So far, though, there is no conclusive data on what kind of effect, positive or negative, concealed carry has had on campus crime rates. Madison Welch, Southwest regional director for pro-gun group Students for Concealed Carry, argues that too few students carry guns to significantly affect statistics, and notes that concealed carry license holders in Texas are less than one-third times as likely to be convicted of murder than the general population, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
"Our push to legalize campus carry is about ensuring that trained, licensed, carefully screened adults are allowed the same measure of personal protection on college campus that they 're currently allowed virtually everywhere else," Welch, a recent graduate of Texas A&M University told me.
To Vabner, though, the close proximity to additional weapons is an intolerable risk. "The thought of anyone carrying a gun here is terrifying to me," she said.