Texas private colleges oppose guns on campus

More than 20 private colleges in Texas have said they won't lift their gun bans when a new law that requires public universities to allow concealed guns on campus takes effect in August. 

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File
Protesters gather on the West Mall of the University of Texas campus on Oct. 1, 2015, to oppose a new state law that expands the rights of concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons on public college campuses. More than 20 private universities in the state have said they would not lift their gun bans when the law goes into effect Aug. 1.

When Texas' conservative Legislature passed a law requiring public universities to allow concealed guns on campus, it also gave the state's private institutions of higher learning the chance to follow suit. None has so far.

More than 20 private schools have said they won't lift their gun bans when the law takes effect this August, including the state's largest private universities that have religious affiliations and often align with the type of conservative values espoused by the politicians behind the law.

The opposition has not surprised top Texas Republicans who championed the law as a matter of constitutional rights and self-defense. But it reflects a widespread belief even among conservative university leaders that guns have no place in the classroom.

Baylor, Texas Christian, and Southern Methodist universities have all declined to allow guns on their campuses.

"My own view is that it is a very unwise public policy," Baylor President Ken Starr, a former prosecutor and judge best known for his work on the Whitewater investigation involving President Bill Clinton, said late last year. The Baptist school announced this month that guns would not be allowed on campus.

Previous law generally banned concealed handguns from Texas' public and private universities. That changed last year, when lawmakers passed the so-called "campus carry" law that requires public universities to allow concealed handgun license holders to bring their weapons into campus buildings and classrooms.

Texas will be one of at least 20 states that allow some form of campus carry. But only a few make it a defined right in state law like Texas does.

The law faced strong objections from public higher education officials, law enforcement, students, and faculty across the state. Opponents included University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, the former head of US Special Operations Command who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. A notable exception was Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who said guns on campus didn't trouble him.

When public schools asked for the same choice private schools have, state lawmakers said no.

The author of the law, Sen. Brian Birdwell, whose district includes Baylor, said he had to protect the public's "God-given" right of self-defense on public property, but also private property rights. He notes private businesses can ban guns.

Private universities are "no different than Starbucks selling coffee. What they are selling is different," Senator Birdwell said.

"Now it's up to the marketplace of free enterprise ... to make a market decision," about guns on campus, Birdwell said. "My duty was to preserve their ability to make that choice."

Lawmakers likely also would have faced legal action from private schools over any attempt to force them to accept guns. Many of the state's private schools are religious-based and likely would have resisted having such a major policy decision thrust on them.

"I did expect a number of schools to try to circumvent the law," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told WFAA-TV of Dallas. "I don't know why colleges are fixated with this. I think it makes campuses safer."

The campus carry advocacy group Students for Concealed Carry supported private university choice and expected most to initially ban guns.

"(Our) hope is that once the administrators of private colleges see campus carry safely and successfully implemented on public college campuses, they'll reconsider," the group said.

The public school gun mandate frustrates University of Texas President Greg Fenves. On Wednesday, Mr. Fenves begrudgingly approved rules allowing guns in his classrooms, saying the law gave him no alternative.

"Private universities have made a statement that handguns do not belong in campus buildings. I agree," Fenves said. "We don't have a choice."

There is an ironic twist to the law's Aug. 1 start date, as it will be the 50th anniversary of sniper Charles Whitman's deadly attack from the top of the University of Texas campus clock tower and administration building.

While some faculty warn Texas' public universities will be less attractive to top teachers, researchers, and students once guns are allowed, others are threatening to make a stand this fall against the law.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Texas professor Steven Weinberg has said he will put into his syllabus that his class is not open to students carrying guns.

"I may wind up in court," Professor Weinberg said. "I'm willing to accept that possibility."

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