Republicans in the Texas Senate on Monday approved allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry weapons into public college buildings and classrooms, moving forward on a measure that had stalled until supporters tacked it on to a universities spending bill.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, had been unable to muster the votes he needed under Senate rules to pass the issue as its own bill after the measure met stiff resistance from higher education officials, notably from within the University of Texas system.
The measure seemed all but assured easy passage when the legislative session began in January. The Senate had passed a similar bill in 2009 and about 90 lawmakers in the 150-member House had signed on in support this year. But the bill stalled on its first three votes in the Senate and took some maneuvering by Wentworth to get it through.
The Senate's 12 Democrats had mostly worked as a block to stop the measure but were powerless to stop it on Monday when all it took was a simple majority in the 31-member chamber to get it added to the spending bill as an amendment.
At that point, Wentworth even picked up an extra vote from Rep. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who had previously opposed the measure.
Supporters call it a critical self-defense measure and gun rights issue. Opponents worry concealed handguns could lead to more campus violence and suicide.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who was a student at the University of Texas in 1966 when sniper Charles Whitman killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others, vigorously argued against the guns measure.
She predicted mass chaos if police respond to a call and find several people with guns drawn.
"I can't imagine the horrors if this passes," Zaffirini said.
Wentworth was unmoved. He recalled the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech University, when a gunman killed 32 people and said he wants to give students a chance to defend themselves.
"There was no one there to defend themselves in a gun-free zone that was a victim-rich zone," Wentworth said. "I'm trying to avoid that type of situation."
Texas passed its concealed handgun license law in 1995. License holders must be at least 21 and pass a training course.
Guns on campus bills have been rejected in at least 23 states since 2007. The bill originally covered private universities as well, but was changed to cover only public institutions of higher education.
For supporters like the national group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, Texas was the big prize. Early signs the bill would pass here captured the attention of international media which could not resists the state's larger-than-life reputation and frontier image.
Texas is where concealed handgun license holders are allowed to skip metal detectors in the state Capitol, and Gov. Rick Perry made headlines for shooting a coyote on a morning jog last year. Earlier on Monday, senators voted to allow themselves to carry concealed handguns into places the rest of the public cannot, such as churches, restaurants and sporting events.
Perry has said he supports the campus guns measure and is expected to sign it into law if it reaches his desk.
Monday's Senate vote may clear the way for a vote in the House as well. A similar House bill already has been approved in committee but had stalled without a vote by the full chamber.
Hearings on the measure were dominated by powerful testimony from supporters who had been raped or assaulted on campus and by opponents who survived the shootings at Virginia Tech.