By Jim Vertuno
AUSTIN — Two days after a knife-wielding attacker wounded more than a dozen people on a Texas college campus, a state House panel voted to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry weapons into college buildings and classrooms.
The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee pushed the bill up to the full House with a 7-1 vote without debate. Lawmakers had taken public testimony on the measure several weeks ago.
On Tuesday, authorities say a man used a razor utility knife to slash 14 people on two floors of the health science building at Lone Star Community College in Cypress.
Gun rights supporters say the bill, by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, is self-defense measure that will help prevent campus shootings and assaults. Opponents argue that allowing guns into campus buildings, particularly classrooms, only increases the chances for violence.
The guns-on-campus measure has been opposed by state universities in the past, and the question erupted into one of the most contentious issues of the 2011 session before it failed despite strong support from groups like the Texas State Rifle Association.
Fletcher’s bill gives the state’s public universities and colleges a chance to opt out of the provision if they first consult with students, faculty and staff. Private universities could opt in. For campuses that still ban weapons, the bill reduces the penalty for a violation by concealed handgun license holders from a felony to a misdemeanor, a crime that would still cause them to lose their license.
Texas is one of the strongest gun-rights states in the country and has allowed concealed handgun licenses since 1995. License holders must be at least 21 years old and pass a training course. They are allowed to carry their weapons many places, including the state Capitol where simply showing their license to security will allow them to bypass metal detectors.
Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, a co-sponsor of the bill, called Thursday’s vote a key step, considering the full House never voted in 2011. He refused to predict its chances of passing this year.
The only committee member to vote against the campus-carry bill was Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso.
The committee also considered a measure requiring criminal background checks before gun sales at gun shows. The bill by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would require that buyers at gun shows be run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Federal law requires licensed gun retailers to call the FBI or other designated agency to make sure a customer does not have a criminal record or otherwise ineligible to purchase a firearm. According to the FBI, the system has been used for more than 100 million background checks, leading to more than 700,000 denials over the last decade.
Licensed dealers at gun shows are required to conduct background checks, but unlicensed sellers are not, Anchia said, noting his bill does not stop private guns sales.
“I don’t want (drug) cartel members, criminals, the mentally ill to get their hands on guns through anonymous sales at gun shows,” Anchia said. “It’s a public safety issue.”
The bill was left pending without a vote and Flynn said it will have a hard time passing the committee.
“He should pay more attention to the makeup of this panel. The members are strong in their support of the Second Amendment and don’t want any more restrictions.”
Some lawmakers questioned whether more gun owners should be tracked by the government.
“None of us want criminals or people who are mentally deranged to have guns,” said Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton. “But we’re more skeptical of Big Brother knowing that we own a gun.”