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2017 April 24 - 03:26 pm

Texas Colleges Shun Banning Guns in Classrooms

Dual Enrollment Complicates Campus Carry Law

AUSTIN, Texas — With thousands of minors taking classes at community colleges in Texas, some state lawmakers predicted that it would be tricky for the schools to implement a law that allows concealed handgun license holders to carry their guns on campus.

That helps explain why the Legislature gave the two-year colleges an extra year before the 2015 law went into effect.

But as the Aug. 1 date approaches for when guns will be legal at the dozens of community and junior colleges across the state, the decisions on rules at many campuses are turning out to be pretty simple. Guns will most likely be allowed in most classrooms, even the ones that have students under the age of 18.

Guns in classrooms is an issue that universities have already grappled with since the law went into effect for them in 2016. The law itself isn’t specific on the issue; it simply says that schools have the power to create some gunfree zones on campus but that those zones can’t have the effect of making it impossible for a student, teacher or visitor from carrying a gun at all. Over the protests of many professors, the four-year schools all agreed that banning guns in classrooms would violate the spirit of the campus carry law.

But the number of kids on community college campuses has grown in recent years as the state emphasizes dualcredit classes, which count toward both high school and college degrees. The state still bans guns in high schools, so would that mean that community colleges could ban guns in classes with high school students?

Schools seem to be concluding that the answer is no.

They cite a legal opinion issued by Attorney General Ken Paxton that said schools couldn’t ban guns in all their classes ”merely because minors may attend or be present in all classrooms.” But Paxton’s opinion said the schools are authorized to write reasonable rules that take into account the “nature of the student population.” And bans might be permissible, he wrote, in classrooms “at times where there might be a congregation of minors” or places where childcare services are provided.

Many colleges have taken that to mean that they can ban guns in classes of only high schoolers but not in classes with a few high schoolers and mostly regular students.

“We think the attorney general was pretty clear that those need to be treated like regular classes,” said Joyce Langenegger, director of professional development and member of the campus carry task force at Blinn College, which has campuses in Brenham, Bryan, Schulenburg and Sealy.

Paxton’s opinion is nonbinding, and it doesn’t spell out a specific percentage of high school students that a class must surpass before guns can be banned in it. A college could still opt to test the limits of the law. But so far, none have indicated that they plan to do so.

Supporters of the bill are closely watching.

Students for Concealed Carry, a national student group, has already criticized Central Texas College in Killeen and Lone Star College in Houston for considering allowing professors to ban guns in their offices. And it has derided Amarillo College for considering a ban at its oncampus art museum.

“Some of these schools act as if Texas doesn’t have a 21- year history of safely allowing trained, vetted, licensed adults to carry concealed handguns for personal protection,” said Brian Bensimon, the group’s southwest regional director.

But the decision-making process has been mostly tame. Some schools have reported receiving thousands of public comments as they evaluate rules. But there haven’t been the same widespread protests that occurred at universities.

“The process has gone pretty smoothly so far,” said Heath Cariker, police chief at Kilgore College in East Texas.

That could be in part due to the fact that the impact of the law hasn’t been as dramatic as some critics predicted. In more than half a year since it has been implemented, there has only been one real incident that can be directly pinned on campus carry — a student at Tarleton State accidentally fired his gun in his dorm room. No one was hurt.

The Texas Tribune (www.texastribune.org) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Also from MATTHEW WATKINS, The Texas Tribune

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