PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press - AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) - Bills known as "campus carry" and "open carry" passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee Thursday. They vote was along party lines, 7 to 2. Six out of the seven Republicans co-wrote the "Campus Personal Protection Act," which would allow CHL holders to go inside college classrooms.
Weeks of tension over Texas gun rights shifted to the grind of lawmaking Thursday when more than 100 people waited under heightened security at the Capitol to testify on looser firearm laws that Republicans have prioritized under new Gov. Greg Abbott. State troopers arrested one man, and a gun control group said it brought an unarmed bodyguard in the wake of clashes and unease, including a January confrontation between a Democratic state representative and activists in his office that led to him having a security detail. But calm and order largely governed a Senate hearing over proposals to legalize concealed firearms on college campuses and open carry everywhere else. Despite its Wild West roots, Texas is one of only six states that prohibit gun owners from holstering handguns in full view.
That may change this legislative session, though. After nine hours of testimony, the committee voted 7 to 2 along partisan lines to approve both open and campus carry bills, likely fast-tracking them for a full Senate vote when lawmakers can begin passing bills next month.
That wasn't what many who testified hoped to see. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, making an appeal to rivalry instead of ideology, quipped to senators that Texas shouldn't follow the lead of Oklahoma.
"I would follow Oklahoma any day over who we're following now, which is California, Illinois and New York," said Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton, ticking off a list of Democratic strongholds.
A 34-year-old was arrested on a criminal trespass charge at the Capitol as activists on both sides began crowding a corridor and filling two overflow rooms, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said. He did not immediately provide details.
There were other moments of quiet tension. A volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which said it brought security to the Capitol, gave testimony while seated next to a leader of a gun rights group she accuses of making threats against her organization. Angela Turner said afterward it was "intimidating" in some ways but described feeling safe around troopers, who she said wouldn't be at grocery stores or playgrounds if Texas legalizes open carry.
Kory Watkins, head of the group Open Carry Tarrant County, has been denounced by other gun rights groups for brash comments and brazen protests that include carrying loaded long guns into stores. Panic buttons also became a concern of lawmakers after Watkins' group refused to leave the office of Democratic state Rep. Poncho Nevarez.
Watkins said he won't stop if open carry fails to pass.
"If you guys do decide to go against this, I will walk until my feet bleed to make sure that you never are an elected official again," he said. "If you choose to go against my God-given rights, I will continue to walk around with an AK-47 with no license," he said.
But the mostly slow pace of the hearing was a departure from four restless weeks of politics and drama over the proposals - which Texas Republicans have repeatedly tried and failed to pass. Abbott says he will sign an open carry bill but roadblocks have slowed conservative momentum, including some of their own doing.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had expressed uncertainty about open carry passing the Senate, then appeared to walk back those comments after being met with criticism. High-profile opposition has also emerged.
New University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven, the former Navy SEAL who coordinated the raid on Osama bin Laden, has told lawmakers he doesn't want students on his campuses carrying guns. Seven states have some form of law governing campus carry, according to the group Students for Concealed Carry.
McRaven didn't testify, but a group of his undergraduates waited for their chance. Some were concerned with police profiling minorities who might carry guns, a worry that Democrats have echoed.
"There's already a lot of prejudice on campus," said student Brandon Mond, "And I don't feel like guns on campus can make anyone feel safe."
Associated Press writer Eva Ruth Moravec contributed to this report.
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