Senate Committee on Criminal Justice

The state Senate Committee on Criminal Justice on Tuesday heard testimony from supporters and opponents of SB 354, a bill which would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry concealed handguns inside buildings of Texas public universities, including UT.

For an issue that has been passionately debated for years, the testimony on both sides was refreshingly respectful and nuanced. Supporters included lawmakers, veterans and students. They argued that the bill intends to give law-abiding citizens a reasonable means of defense against aggressors, that it aims to protect adults, faculty, staff and nontraditional students, as most CHL holders in Texas are more than 25 years old (although a pending lawsuit could lower the minimum age of CHL eligibility to 18) and that concealed handguns are already permitted on streets and sidewalks of public universities.

Witnesses on both sides shared stories about the impact of crime and guns on their lives, and the discussion was largely devoid of the degenerative topics that usually pop up in online comment sections and informal debates on the subject, such as pejorative questions about the sexuality and masculinity of male gun opponents and the intelligence of gun supporters.

Despite the thoughtful and compelling arguments in favor of the bill, we remain opposed to allowing concealed handguns in public university buildings because in matters of life and death, we listen to the experts.

University, state and national law enforcement leaders have vocally opposed allowing handguns in college classrooms. UTPD Chief Robert Dahlstrom told The Daily Texan in February, “I can say handguns would definitely complicate law enforcement on campus.” Similarly, on Wednesday, the Texan reported Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo stating “one of the concerns we have in law enforcement ... is distinguishing the friendly armed persons from unfriendly armed persons.”

Many supporters of the legislation argue campus shootings can be mitigated if armed students are able to use their weapons against aggressors before law enforcement arrive. While this may be effective in theory, the leaders of APD and UTPD, with their extensive education, experience and training in law enforcement, disagree with its application to reality.

It should also be noted that UT President William Powers Jr. and the UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, both of whom are entrusted with the safety and protection of thousands of students, oppose the legislation.

Powers, Cigarroa, Dahlstrom and Acevedo share the completely apolitical objective of keeping students safe, and their expertise should be heeded.

Aside from the expert-refuted claims that concealed handguns on campus would be an asset in a crisis, the other primary argument from Tuesday’s hearing is about personal protection. Several witnesses explained that they should be allowed to carry handguns into campus buildings because they need protection while walking home at night, entering poorly lit parking garages and when placed in other precarious situations.

We obviously recognize one’s right to personal protection and understand that simply “being safe” is sadly often insufficient to ensure a person’s well being. The problem with this argument when related to campus handguns is that it automatically equates protection with guns, as if the only way a person can defend him or herself is by carrying a firearm. Thousands regularly carry mace, tasers and other tools which can immobilize an attacker but do not carry the risk associated with firearms. Student protection does not need to mean student protection with guns.

Despite our opposition, we recognize the bill’s passage is virtually inevitable. The Senate bill is expected to be voted out of committee later this week, and the House is expected to approve its version of the bill soon.

When the bill becomes a law, we hope both sides of the debate are able to work together toward the common goal for which each side claims to have advocated all along: campus safety. Campus handgun supporters and opponents should direct their efforts and resources toward areas that will undeniably enhance campus security, such as greater support and funding for campus mental health services, law enforcement and programs such as SURE Walk, a student organization that provides walking escorts to students on campus at night.

Yesterday’s Senate hearing was thorough, civil and thought-provoking, and while we strongly oppose the predicted outcome of the legislation, we hope it causes all parties involved to refocus their efforts toward cultivating a safer campus.