This is a report from Texas Monthly's intern, Abby Rapoport, on the Public Safety committee hearing of March 30 on Joe Driver's bill allowing guns on campus.
It was four hours into the meeting before Public Safety made it to the issue that had brought crowds. Joe Driver presented HB 1893 which would allow concealed handguns on public and private college campuses. In his introduction, Driver argued that the bill did not affect most students, since the bill applies only to those over 21 and still allows colleges to forbid firearms in dorms. “The idea that the act will result in any increase in violence is simply incorrect,” he said.
As witnesses testified, Phil King took the middle ground and drew on his own experiences, having been a police officer while in college. He concerned himself with whether or not students should have handguns, although he wanted to make sure everyone could have a gun in a car. “Faculty who have a long walk [keeping a gun] in a drawer or a purse—I would be willing to acknowledge the need for that,” he said. When questions arose—specifically about how the law would affect teachers who were also taking classes—King, along with Merritt, insisted on the DPS witness calling his office for more information.
Lon Burnam and Joe Driver, coming from opposite ideological sides, worked together in prolonging the testimony. Burnam took an impressively sanctimonious route in much of his questioning. Best example: In questioning the president of La Tourneau University, he asked the president if the school taught the Ten Commandments. The poor witness said yes only to have Burnam continue: “And is one of them ‘Thou shalt not kill’? …. And what is a gun for?” Many seemed to cringe that the debate on CHLs on campuses might turn into a debate on guns in general, when there were still many left to testify.
Similarly, Driver took every opportunity to argue with witnesses against the bill. Several witnesses referenced a survey showing that college students aged 18-25 had significantly higher rates of mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Driver repeatedly pointed out that this included students too young to have a CHL. In one of the more outlandish moments, Driver went head to head with the chief of police at Rice. The exchange:
Driver asks what police do if two people are shooting at each other. “They tell everybody to get on the ground don’t they?”
Taylor: No, not an active shooter.
Driver: They just let ‘em shoot?
Taylor: No, we shoot them. Neutralize the threat.
Driver: I’ll be interested to look into that. Thank you.
Taylor: If you check into the training that’s done through ALERT I think you’ll find that’s the case.
Driver: So you’re just gonna drop anyone that has a gun.
Taylor: We won’t have time to find out who—
Driver: You’re just gonna drop anyone who has a gun. Whether they’re shooting or not.
Taylor: If there is shooting going on at the time, yes sir.
Driver: We will have to look into that too.
Driver: Do the Houston police ever come on campus?
Taylor: On occasion, not very often.
Driver: Do you shoot them? They’ve got a gun, man.
Driver’s show of writing down the information so he could “look into that” seemed rather inappropriate (since it soon became apparent that “neutralizing threats” was general protocol), and his arguments were particularly striking given that on many committees, those introducing a bill do not participate very actively in questioning witnesses.
But Driver’s behavior was somewhat typical of the committee. For a vast majority of the preceding four hours the committee discussed three different bills involving driver’s licenses and state IDs. As committee chair, Merritt allowed committee members to grandstand on their bills, and Driver, as well as Burnam and Merritt himself, took advantage. Merritt’s REAL ID bill, which would bring Texas into compliance with federal laws on identification, brought many individuals to testify, representing themselves.
Between the questions of ID and CHLs, Kolkhorst presented the Sunset bill on DPS, and her mastery of the topic was striking, given that its outside her areas of specialty. “I did not look to be the lead on this,” she explained, “but I sat there and I got madder and madder.” Although the presentation was relatively uneventful—among other things, the bill creates a “civilian business management model” and will do more to oversee vehicle inspection—Kolkhorst made no secret of some tensions on the committee. She referenced that Isett had referred to her and Linda Harper-Brown as “the estrogen caucus.” “I hope chairman Isett’s listening because I will never let him forget that,” she said with a smile.
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