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McClatchy Newspapers, Published March 17 2011

Panel OKs measure to allow guns at colleges

AUSTIN, Texas — After an emotional 5 ½-hour hearing, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee voted 5-3 Wednesday night to advance legislation to allow concealed handguns on college and university campuses.

House Bill 750, by GOP Rep. Joe Driver would allow holders of concealed-handgun permits to carry their weapons in campus buildings. It would keep a ban on guns in bars, churches, hospitals and athletic events at colleges.

Public colleges and universities would be required to comply, but private institutions, such as TCU and Texas Wesleyan University, could opt out after consulting with the faculty and students.

The vote was along party lines. The five Republican committee members voted in favor. Democratic Reps. Lon Burnam, Armando Walle, and Barbara Mallory Caraway voted no.

James Spaniolo, president of the University of Texas, Arlington, and the school's student congress have opposed the legislation. TCU officials, in a statement this week, also opposed it.

"The ramifications of allowing an individual with a concealed handgun license to carry a weapon on campus would create dangerous situations and in essence, put faculty, staff, students and University guests in the line of fire," the statement says.

Dozens of students, gun-rights advocates, law enforcement officials and education advocates, testifying into the evening, offered sharply divided views.

"We're basically fish in a barrel," said W. Scott Lewis of Austin, representing Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. "This is about changing the odds."

But others, including Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, warned that introducing weapons into the sometimes emotionally charged social atmosphere s at colleges could expand the potential for violence.

Acevedo's officers were among those who swarmed onto the campus of the University of Texas, Austin in September after a 19-year-old math student in a ski mask strolled through the campus firing an AK-47. The student, Colton Tooley, later killed himself in a campus library.

Driver's measure was one of a package of gun-related bills considered by the committee, but the lawmakers deferred votes on the others. Those measures would allow concealed handguns in public junior colleges, public technical institutes and school board meetings.

Driver's measure appeared to draw the most attention during the hearing and is essentially a resurrected version of an unsuccessful measure he introduced during the 2009 legislative session. Driver told committee members that this latest version has support from 83 of the 150 House members and 14 of the 31 Senate members.

Addressing what he said have been erroneous media reports about the bill, Driver said most undergraduate students would not qualify under the bill since permit holders must be 21 or older.

"Passage of this legislation will not result in a large population of armed undergraduates," Driver said.

Proponents say campus violence, such as the massacre of 32 students by a gunman at Virginia Tech in 2007, shows the need for additional safeguards at colleges.

A number of students testified that they need to arm themselves against less publicized violence. John DeLeon, 25, a graduate teaching assistant at UT Arlington, told lawmakers that he sometimes works on campus past midnight and so is vulnerable to campus crime.

"As a responsible citizen, I want the right to protect myself against those who would do me harm," said DeLeon, who said he has a concealed-handgun permit.

Adrienne O'Reilley of Houston, a student at Texas A&M University, fought back tears as she told lawmakers about being assaulted two years ago.

"I refuse to be a victim again," she said in urging lawmakers to pass Driver's bill. "Please give me this option."