by Paige Reitz
Updated March 30, 2015 to add more information about the current status of these bills and the next legislative steps.
The theme in the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety this session is guns (the theme most years is probably guns). Considering that the Republican Party of Texas has made “Constitutional Carry” (carrying a firearm without any sort of license or registration) a legislative priority (a fact many a witness reminds the committee regularly), this should not be surprising. However; for this Moms-Demand-Action-supporting social worker, this committee is probably the most challenging to sit through week after week, gun bill after gun bill.
I grew up in Virginia, a state possibly more pro-gun even than Texas, and just 20-30 minutes away from the national NRA headquarters. I’m the daughter of a hunter, and my mother owned guns my entire childhood: guns that never had any ammunition (in the guns themselves or even in the house), but guns nonetheless. My little brother took down his first buck just a couple years ago. Guns are not something I am entirely ignorant about, though I’m likewise not incredibly knowledgeable about them, and they are something I try to keep my distance from where possible.
On March 17, the committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety convened for nearly five hours to discuss just two bills. And on March 24, they spent another two hours on a third major gun bill. These three bills – HB910; HB937; and HB308 – would vastly change the landscape of guns in Texas.
HB910 (by Rep. Larry Phillips, Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety), the “open carry” bill, would allow open-carry everywhere concealed carry is currently allowed for all CHL (Concealed Handgun License) holders. It passed out of committee on Thursday, March 26, and is now in the Calendars committee, waiting for a date to be heard on the House floor. HB937 (by Rep. Allen Fletcher), the “campus concealed carry” bill, and its companion, SB11 (which has passed out of the Senate), would allow concealed carry in campus buildings where carrying is currently prohibited by law. HB308 (by Rep. Drew Springer), nicknamed the “guns everywhere” bill, would do as the shorthand suggests: It would legalize carrying weapons for CHL-holders in schools, hospitals, bars, churches, and amusement parks – almost everywhere guns are currently prohibited, they would be allowed with this legislation. Taken together, these bills would mean guns would be permitted almost everywhere, concealed or open carry, by anyone with a CHL.
HB910 is a 38-page bill with very few words changed, but the impact is huge. It strikes the “concealed” requirement for CHL holders and allows a Concealed Handgun License holder to carry their handgun in a holster openly anywhere it is permitted currently for CHL-holders to carry concealed. It does have an exception, similar to the “30.06” sign provision for concealed carry, allowing private property owners to display signage stating they do not permit open carry of firearms on their property. This requires CHL-holders to respect the wishes of private property owners. As it has been voted out of committee, it could move to the general floor any time.
HB937 is huge for undergraduate and graduate students. It would allow concealed carry on campuses – public and private. It does give universities and colleges the discretion to choose how to regulate firearms in dormitories and other residential facilities, including storage of firearms. It also excludes hospitals, preschools, elementary schools, and secondary schools that are on university property. It would require private institutions to have a choice whether to allow guns or not, pursuant to the wishes of the student body, faculty, and staff. However, and crucially for the University of Houston, this opt-out choice does NOT extend to public universities. It was suggested by some witnesses providing testimony that there should be an “opt-out” option, keeping control local and in the hands of the universities that know their students best, but this consideration was not added to the bill.
While some witnesses argued that HB937 would make campuses safer, and that not many people would have guns (you can only get a CHL if you are 21 or older unless you are a US veteran honorably discharged, when you can get a CHL as young as 18), others worried that mixing guns with alcohol, frat parties, and the emotional challenges of college students being on their own and discovering their limits for the first time could be a dangerous combination. Mental illness often presents itself in college, and college students struggling with suicidal thoughts may be at higher risk when there are guns easily accessible. There are high-stress situations, pointed out in testimony by professors in the sciences in particular, in which a grade ruins someone’s goals of becoming or pursuing a specific path – such as medical school. Professors discussed fears of giving someone a low grade if the student had a firearm.
Without an opt-out clause, public university campuses would be forced to allow guns on campus, regardless of what the universities believe is in the best interest of their students. Some advocates argued that where guns may make sense at rural campuses where there may be less security, they could be detrimental to urban campuses like UH, and colleges should be able to act in the best interests of their students. This is far from the first session this bill, or a bill of its ilk, has been heard, but it is the first year it has a good chance at passing due to a much more Republican make-up than in the past.
Finally, HB308, the “guns everywhere” bill, rounds out the trifecta. This bill would effectively allow the carrying of guns in primary and secondary schools; hospitals; nursing homes; bars; amusement parks; correctional facilities; high school, college, and professional sporting events; and houses of worship. This bill would require any public entities listed above (particularly hospitals and schools) and any entity that takes public dollars (therefore including even private hospitals if they take Medicaid and/or Medicare patients) to allow CHL holders to carry their guns on the premises. It would allow private entities, such as bars, professional sports arenas, and houses of worship, to post “30.06” signs to prohibit guns as a private property right. This bill also is currently pending in committee.
What happens now? Two of these bills are pending in committee, but could be voted out as soon as Tuesday, March 31; one is already in the Calendars committee. HB910 and HB937 both have companion bills in the Senate; both SB11 (HB937’s companion) and SB17 (HB910’s companion) have passed out of the Senate. The Public Safety committee in the House is working hard to make sure their bills are identical to the Senate’s, or as close as possible, to make sure the bills go through quickly. HB308 has no companion.
The next step for HB937 and HB308 is to be voted out of committee (HB910 already did that); then, bills are sent to the Calendars committee, where they are placed on the Calendar for a general House vote (if they don’t die in the Calendars committee). All House members vote on bills when they go to the House floor, so even if your representative is not on the Homeland Security & Public Safety committee, you can still call or visit your rep to share your views. If the bills pass through the House, there will be conference committees for HB910 and HB937 to make sure they match the companion bills; HB308 will go to the Senate and go through the whole process again, being assigned to a committee (likely State Affairs) and will likely get a hearing where witnesses can testify (otherwise it would die in committee). Once bills go through both chambers, they land on the Governor’s desk for signing or vetoing, but we’re a ways away from that right now. Write, call, or visit your representatives and senators, and make your voice heard!
If it matters to you, make it known! These are just three of the many, many bills being heard in one committee – three of thousands of bills that have been filed, but they’re important. They could dramatically change the landscape of Texas gun laws, and YOUR voice counts, so make it heard.