While the House was busy debating Dennis Bonnen’s border security bill, which ultimately passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on a 131-12 vote, the Senate was tackling Texas’s top priority: guns. Craig Estes’ SB 17, which would allow licensed open carry, passed on third reading, despite vigorous and occasionally inventive but ultimately futile opposition from Democrats when it came to the floor on Monday. Brian Birdwell’s SB 11, which would allow campus carry, still needs a third reading but is as good as passed despite vigorous and occasionally inventive but ultimately futile opposition from Democrats on the floor today.
I have a long story on the 84th Legislature’s great open carry debate in the April issue. It will be available online pretty soon and on newsstands next week. So for today, I’ll just give away the plot twist: this entire saga has effectively been the result of a Freaky Friday-type confusion, in which “open carry” has been used interchangeably to mean “licensed open carry”, as in the Estes bill, and “constitutional carry”, as in the arguably radical belief that insofar as the Second Amendment is a license to carry, no further such license should be required. The Republican Party of Texas’s platform, however, helpfully refers to both “constitutional carry” and “open carry”; the logical implication is that licensed open carry is the real open carry, or real enough. In other words, Dan Patrick has now fought for open carry, and won. Congratulations, Governor Patrick.
I don’t have much to say about campus carry, either, other than this: gun laws are like abortion laws. Both are emotive, divisive, and don’t have many effects in practice.
When I said that earlier today on Twitter, the Texas Observer’s Patrick Michels responded that an abortion law that results in the closure of abortion clinics may indeed be said to have had effects. True, true; fair point. But if asked to summarize a complex situation in 140 characters, or having volunteered to do so, I think my comment stands: we’ve had concealed carry for almost 20 years, and the rate of violent crime has fallen over that period in Texas; there’s no evidence that concealed carry led to more wanton gunplay in Texas, but—since violent crime rates have fallen similarly across the country, regardless of gun laws—there’s no evidence that it mitigated gun violence either. I would expect the same non-results from open carry.
And I would expect the same from campus carry. It was, until two months ago, more contentious than open carry; candidly, when Greg Abbott started touting it in his gubernatorial campaign last year, I thought he was doing so as a way to quietly misdirect the gun-rights crowd from insisting on another campus carry debate, like the ones the Lege saw in 2009, 2011, and 2013. Was there even a prolonged campus carry debate in 2013? I don’t even remember, because if so, it was old hat.
The gist of the debate is as follows. Campus carry advocates think that guns should be allowed on college and university campuses. Campus carry opponents disagree. Polls show that Texans are neatly, almost eerily, divided on the question. But as spooky as that is, it’s arguably irrelevant because the question is one of rights rather than preferences. The Second Amendment exists. It has been interpreted to mean that Texans do have the right to carry handguns (cf 1995’s concealed carry law.) It’s therefore incumbent on campus carry opponents to either a) make the case that campuses, like K-12 schools, should get an exemption or b) bury all campus carry bills in a forgotten corner of the Capitol extension.
Based on previous go-rounds, the latter strategy may work this year. The former has proven tricky, because it’s hard to pin down why students, faculty, or the physical grounds of universities themselves deserve special treatment. It’s been argued, for example, that allowing campus carry will make it harder for Texas’s colleges and universities to recruit top faculty, like the kind Abbott is eyeing as an alternative investment for extant TETF funds. The problem with this argument is that it’s absurd. If they’re really top faculty they probably realize that the University of Texas is in Texas, and maybe the generous benefits and lifetime job security they’ll be offered will help allay their anxieties. If they’re not top faculty, they’re not going to have multiple job offers in adequately gun-skeptical states. As for the physical grounds: on a typical Friday night there are more students on 6th street than Dean Keeton, and we don’t ban guns there, although the idea of doing so is appealing.
If campus carry critics are going to try this line of argument at all, the students would the way to go. The sole novelty of this year’s debate, thus far, has been its overlap with the recently swirling national debate over sexual assault on college campuses. There’s a shared premise underlying both movements–that although college students are usually legal adults, they need differential protections compared to their non-enrolled peers. It’s an elitist premise, since no one is much concerned about 19-year-olds who aren’t in college, and probably an irritating one for the students who like being adults, but if widely established, it would put the case for conceiving of campuses as a legally “safe space” on firmer philosophical footing. If it’s not too late, that is: supporters have already cited campus sexual assault statistics in making the argument for guns on campus, rather than against them.
(State Senator John Whitmire, left, looks on as Senator Royce West, center, raises two fingers signaling a no vote during the final vote of Senate Bill 17, open carry. AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Rodolfo Gonzalez)