Can Texas Colleges Have Gun-Free Classes?
By Tom Benning
Religious Studies 375. "What Is Religion?" Three credit hours. No firearms allowed.
That kind of course catalog listing might not be so farfetched for Texas' public colleges and universities, as school leaders move closer to implementing the state's contentious campus carry law.
Starting next fall, licensed Texans will be able to carry concealed handguns into buildings at four-year public universities. And while public schools can't totally opt out of campus carry, as private ones can, they may carve out "reasonable" gun-free zones.
The discretion _ part of a compromise late in the Legislature's session that helped the bill pass _ has injected uncertainty over how far schools can stretch those bounds. And as lawmakers keep a close eye on how universities proceed, some have speculated that campus carry could end up in court.
Nowhere has the debate been more pointed than over classrooms.
Some argue that the law clearly intended to allow concealed carry in class. Others contend that the law clearly allows schools to outlaw that scenario. But there's a distinct possibility that the resulting rules will end up somewhere in between.
Consider the view of Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who authored the original provision about "reasonable" rules. He said he would have trouble with a blanket prohibition on guns in class, but he could see how some classes "may not be a comfortable setting" for guns.
"Where you get into some of these more political, divisive situations _ where there's a lot of passion and concern _ people maybe ought to have a conversation about that," said Zerwas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.
Campus carry was a major priority this year for pro-gun Republicans, who wanted to expand existing state law that allows individuals with concealed handgun licenses to pack heat on university grounds.
Opponents, pointing to the complex nature of university life, have said the measure would make campuses more dangerous. Supporters, touting constitutional rights and the need for personal protection, have said fears about the law are overblown.
The measure passed the GOP-run Legislature _ but only after some last-minute maneuvering.
Just before a key legislative deadline, Zerwas offered an amendment that provided a way for schools to establish "reasonable rules" about carrying concealed handguns on specific "portions of premises" on campus.
His amendment, which passed, also said those rules cannot "generally prohibit or have the effect of generally prohibiting" the carrying of concealed handguns on campus.
That clause was further opened up in conference committee by giving university presidents the specific power to create gun-free zones, which are then reviewed by boards of regents. And the rules were changed to apply to "premises," not just "portions of premises."
Existing state law ensures that some on-campus areas, such as hospitals or sporting events, can still be off-limits to guns. But it remains a point of contention over what flexibility the universities have beyond that _ especially as it relates to classrooms.
Campus carry backers argue that restrictions beyond special cases, such as volatile lab equipment, would defy the whole point of the law. Sen. Brian Birdwell, who wrote the campus carry bill, said he's confident university leaders will "strictly adhere to both the letter and spirit" of the law.
Opponents like Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, say the law should be implemented "as written."
Though he voted against campus carry, he helped crafted the bill's compromise language. He said the reference to "premises" _ which is defined as a "building or part of a building" _ gives campus leaders clearance to ban guns in class.
"As to whether or not it is reasonable, that is one of the most argued over terms in the American language," he said, adding he thinks it would be.
And then there's Zerwas, who said he's looking for evidence that the campuses have undertaken deep, deliberate thought.
Guns banned in Biology 101? "Give me a break," he said. But he said such a policy might make sense in other classrooms. Noting that there could be circumstances he hasn't considered, he said he could see some campuses ending up 90 percent off-limits to guns.
"Why did you end up at that level?" he said, adding that such large gun-free zones would likely be at a medical school. "That's what it really comes down to."
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