With national attention focused on gun violence and Second Amendment rights, the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature seems determined to take a stand on guns, with bills that include allowing concealed weapons on university campuses to legislation denying the enforcement of federal gun laws.
"In Texas, we believe in freedom, personal responsibility and the God-given right to defend yourself and your family," Gov. Rick Perry told the National Rifle Association during its recent meeting in Houston "We never lose faith in our Founding Fathers' wisdom to include the Second Amendment to the Constitution among the Bill of Rights. A threat to gun ownership is a threat to a basic Constitutional right."
The House on Saturday passed around a dozen bills related to guns, designed to expand and protect those rights, including a bill by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston, that would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their guns on college campuses.
The chamber also passed a bill by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, that would penalize local governments that seek to enforce any federal gun bans.
"The Second Amendment is the amendment that keeps people free," Toth said.
Houston Democrat Gene Wu, a former prosecutor, took issue with that bill on his Twitter feed with this comment:
"In case your head is too thick to understand: State law will not trump federal law," he wrote.
Much of the legislation passed by the House now faces resistance in the Senate.
Details on bills
Included in the bills approved by the chamber were measures that would create a new offense for the illegal seizure of a firearm, make it easier for CHL holders to renew their licenses, reduce the number of training hours needed for a license and protect CHL holders from being penalized for "accidentally" showing their weapons in public.
And a bill by freshman Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, establishes a school marshal program modeled after the undercover air marshal program. Schools would choose an employee already licensed to carry a gun who would serve as a volunteer marshal, his or her gun stored on campus away from students but within reach in case of tragedy.
Villalba said he was inspired by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"This legislation provides school districts with a cost-effective school security option that includes robust training tailored to protect children in schools during an active shooter situation," Villalba said.
Opposition to bills
Democrats fought vigorously against the bills, trying several legislative tactics to delay or the kill the bills.
But in a state where a large number of Democrats are also members of the National Rifle Association, their efforts were unsuccessful. About a dozen Democrats voted with Republicans on the campus carry legislation.
Some of the Democrats even carried pro-gun legislation, including House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Chairman Ryan Guillen, who passed a bill prohibiting businesses from posting "no guns" signs in locations where state law allows weapons to be carried.
"Few things are more sacred in the state of Texas than our constitutional right to bear arms," said House Republican Caucus Chairman Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. "As the federal government continues to introduce measures that could infringe upon the Second Amendment, members of the Texas House Republican Caucus are fighting back."
'Campus carry' legislation
Much of the publicity around the so-called "campus carry" legislation has centered on mass shootings at schools like the University of Virginia, but Fletcher, a retired Houston police officer, said his bill is more for personal protection.
"I did not file this bill so that the CHL holders could be heroes in mass shooting situations," Fletcher said. "Those tragic events are thankfully extremely rare. This is to allow CHL holders to protect themselves in situations where the only two people involved are the law-abiding citizen and the criminal intent on doing them harm."
Under current law, Texas universities can decide to allow weapons on campus—in fact, Texas A&M University has already taken that step. This legislation, if it passes both chambers and gets to the governor, would require universities to allow concealed carry on campus unless they opt out—encouraging more participation by more campuses.
The bill is the strongest gun-rights legislation that has gotten movement in the Legislature, but it faces death in the Texas Senate, where a Democratic committee chairman has promised to halt the campus-carry bill and where few of the House measures, except possibly the school marshal bill, has broad support in the upper chamber.
"I don't think there is any question the tragedies around the country put a chilling effect on the broadening of the right to carry, certainly on campuses or any other venue," said Houston Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. "I personally think we need a cooling off period before we extend the right to carry on campuses or any other venues."
Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said he opposed several campus-carry proposals.
"I supported Rep. Villalba's bill to have trained law enforcement in schools, but beyond that, I think we need to de-escalate, not escalate, the amount of weaponry on school campuses," Strama said. "So in general, I opposed a lot of the bills that increased the amount of weapons on campus."