The gun-friendly state of Texas is poised to become more strapped than ever.
Though the first months of its legislative session were dominated by armed rallies, threats, and heated confrontations over expanded Second Amendment rights, two fast-tracked pro-gun bills sailed out of the Republican-dominated State Senate last week — one allowing concealed handguns on campus and the other permitting concealed handgun license holders to openly carry handguns throughout Texas. They will now be considered by the State House.
"We have seen a realignment of the legislature in the state," Andy Pelosi, the executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, told VICE News. "Texas has now become fertile ground for the gun lobby to push their agenda."
It might not come as a surprise that gun rights are set to expand in the Lone Star State. After all, the fastest way into the state Capitol building is with a concealed handgun permit, which exempts the firearm carrier from security screening. But critics of gun rights legislation have come to see the Capitol as a place where the firearm lobby has gained an influential foothold that disregards the large number of Texans that support increased gun control.
Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly signaled that he is prepared to sign any legislation into law that would expand Second Amendment rights in Texas, and lawmakers intend to put his pen to work. While a flurry of pro-gun bills have been filed this session — including several calling for "constitutional" or "permitless" carry and another that would prohibit doctors from asking patient about guns — only two have made it out of committee.
But that doesn't mean what it used to. A change in Senate procedure earlier this year scrapped the two-thirds majority rule required for a bill to be taken up on the Senate floor. The change requires the votes of 19 senators rather than 21 in order for the Senate to consider legislation. With 20 Republican members in the 31-seat chamber, the rule has benefited the GOP and eliminated the need for bipartisan support.
'Criminals don't ask permission to carry guns. We want people to have the same rights. That is freedom.'
Senate Bill 17, which passed out of the Senate with a vote of 20-10 while students were on spring break, would require the state's public universities to allow handgun license holders to carry their firearms on campus.
Authored by Republican State Sen. Brian Birdwell, the bill has been criticized by law enforcement officers, students, university faculty and staff, and the newly appointed chancellor of the University of Texas System, Adm. William McRaven — the man who oversaw the Navy SEAL operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. McRaven expressed his opposition to the bill in a letter addressed to the governor, his lieutenant governor, and the Texas House speaker.
"Our parents, students, faculty, administrators, and law enforcement all continue to express their concerns that the presence of concealed handguns on campus would contribute to a less-safe environment, not a safer one," he wrote.
"The argument that should be the most compelling is that university students have high rates of suicide," said Pelosi, adding that the presence of guns and alcohol would only serve to exaggerate this risk. "But if this doesn't resonate with lawmakers, we'll see if the financial aspect does."
His group estimates that the campus carry bill, if passed, would cost the state $47 million dollars over six years to add campus police officers, expand their training, update security systems, and construct gun storage facilities at schools. Currently, 20 states ban carrying a concealed weapon on a college campus.
"Honestly, I don't trust us," Rohit Mandalapu, a student government vice president-elect at the University of Texas at Austin who testified against the bill last week, told VICE News. "Campus is a high-stress environment. I think [this legislation] will legitimize a choice for students that I don't think is appropriate for campus."
But gun rights advocates say that little will change if SB 17 passes. Public universities can already choose to allow guns on campus, though only one, Texas A&M University in College Station, has decided to do so.
"I'm happy about campus carry. The police are always minutes away when seconds count," C. J. Grisham, the president of Open Carry Texas, told VICE News. "But this doesn't really extend rights to anyone. It only removes restrictions."
Last week the Texas Senate also approved Senate Bill 11, authored by Republican State Sen. Craig Estes, which would allow those with concealed weapons permits to openly carry holstered handguns. His supporters have repeatedly pointed to the fact that Texas is currently one of six states that prohibit citizens from openly carrying handguns.
"We have 800,000 licensed carriers in Texas that have been vetted, trained, and can be trusted to do what is best for them," Estes declared to the Senate ahead of the vote last Tuesday. "I believe in freedom. The question we need to ask is not should we permit them to do this, but why are they forbidden to do this?"
But many gun activists are frustrated that the bill requires a concealed carry permit, which involves a criminal background check. Texas law holds that anyone convicted of a Class A or B misdemeanor is barred from carrying a concealed handgun for five years.
"We celebrate this step, but are disappointed that it is going to a licensed open carry," Matthew Short, the press officer for the pro-gun rights group Come and Take It Texas, told VICE News. "Criminals don't ask permission to carry guns. We want people to have the same rights. That is freedom."
Though he is one of the state's most visible open carry activists, Grisham is among those that could be denied a license because he was convicted in 2013 with a Class B misdemeanor for interfering with police after he was stopped on a hike while carrying an AR-15 rifle. He is appealing the decision.
"It is an inalienable right of the people to bear arms. Our founding fathers wanted that for us," Grisham told VICE News. He argues that requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon is an unconstitutional limit on the Second Amendment.
While the Senate passed SB 11 by a vote of 20 to 11, support for open carry outside of the Capitol doesn't appear as strong. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll earlier this year found that 68 percent of voters were opposed to open carry. A poll released by the Texas Police Chiefs Association earlier this year showed that nearly 75 percent of police chiefs opposed open carry in Texas, while 90 percent said that if open carry passes, a license should be required.
While Texas lawmakers appear to have embraced the expansion of gun rights, there are notable exceptions. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston, has filed a list of gun control measures that aim to ban large capacity magazines and restrict private transfers of firearms at gun shows. Democratic State Rep. Garnet Coleman has also filed a bill that would modify the state's Stand Your Ground law, requiring that the person in danger attempt to retreat before using lethal force.
While pro-gun rights legislation has big support in both chambers, SB 17 and SB 11 are expected to face stronger opposition in the Texas House, which is slightly more moderate than the Senate. The state's gun rights proponents, meanwhile, remain defiant.
"If open and campus carry pass, more law-abiding citizens would be able to exercise their Second Amendment rights without restrictions," said Grisham. "And if they don't, well… you will have people who refuse to be victims. They will carry anyway, and current laws will criminalize them."
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