When it comes to guns on campus, University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven is in a bit of an awkward position.
A month ago, the former Navy admiral was one of the most vocal opponents of legislation allowing people to carry guns into university buildings. Now, the campus carry bill has become law, and McRaven must help determine exactly where guns will be allowed at the nine universities he oversees.
But he can’t simply ban guns altogether. Instead, he’ll walk a fine line between his views on safety and his job upholding the spirit of a law passed by a Legislature with strong views on gun rights. And he’ll try to do it with passionate advocates on both sides closely watching.
Similar scenarios will play out at schools across the state. Now that Gov. Greg Abbott has signed Senate Bill 11 into law, each four-year state school has 14 months to come up with its own policy on where concealed handguns may be carried by students or others with a state license. The new law provides few specifics on where those guns can or cannot be banned, leaving the process open to passionate debate.
“We are going to figure out how to make sure we do everything we can to protect the faculty and the students and the visitors and not impact academic freedom in any way,” McRaven said in an interview soon after SB 11 passed. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure we’re meeting the full intent of this bill.”
That could be difficult, however, since the intent is a matter of debate. As written, the law expressly states that the holder of a concealed handgun license can carry a gun on college campuses. But it also allows schools to create some gun-free zones.
The law doesn’t say how big those zones can be, or how many can be created. Can a president declare all of a school’s dorms, classrooms and dining halls gun-free? Or are the zones limited to particularly dangerous locations, like where harmful chemicals are stored?
SB 11 simply says that school presidents can write “reasonable rules, regulations or other provisions” related to guns after consulting students, staff and faculty. And the school’s governing board must approve the rules before they go into effect.
The debate about how strict those rules can be began before the bill even passed. The legislation’s author, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said from the Senate floor that his bill only allowed for “very limited, reasonable prohibitions” on guns in specific parts of campus. Exemptions for entire dorms or other buildings would not be allowed, he said.
Other lawmakers disagreed, however, noting that nothing in the bill’s language backs up Birdwell’s assessment.
For the most part, the schools have offered few hints about how they will interpret the law. A few university presidents have sent out campus-wide emails saying they will consult students, faculty and staff before any decisions are made. Most discussions won’t start until fall, when more people are on campus.
“We are already aware that this is going to be one of the biggest issues that we are going to have next year,” said Adam Alattry, student body president at the University of North Texas for the 2015-16 year.
Alattry was opposed to campus carry, joining 12 other student body presidents in writing a letter to Abbott asking him not to sign the bill. But he acknowledged that some groups on his campus strongly favor campus carry. Reaching a compromise acceptable to everyone will be difficult, he said.
Chuck Hemptsead, executive director of the Texas Association of College Teachers, agreed. He said that an “overwhelming majority” of his members are opposed to allowing guns in classrooms.
“I think it will be an emotional thing,” he said.
Imposing too many restrictions would risk pushback from pro-gun groups and lawmakers, and legislators might be tempted to repeal the campuses’ autonomy in 2017 if that happens. And gun rights activists say they’ll be closely watching to make sure the schools don’t go too far.
“We know that is a possibility and we are prepared to take the necessary measures to protect students, faculty and staff,” said Michael Newbern, communications director for Students for Concealed Carry.
Newbern said his nationwide group has sued universities in the past for restricting students’ gun rights. Those schools include the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University.
Similar challenges are likely in Texas, said University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas, an opponent of campus carry. But the threat of litigation shouldn’t deter the schools, he said. Universities are already allowed to set up areas where students can protest or electioneer, even thought that’s protected speech, he said. Rules prohibiting guns wouldn’t be much different, he said.
“I think institutions understand that there is a responsibility to provide a safe campus,” said Olivas, director of the university’s Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance.
Aman Batheja contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The University of Houston, the University of North Texas and the Texas Association of College Teachers are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.