Campus gun debate is personal at University of Texas

By Corrie MacLaggan

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – University of Texas junior Sonia Escot was studying at her usual first-floor spot at a campus library on that morning last September when a fellow student walked in with an AK-47.

“If that shooter had wanted to shoot, I would have been one of the first,” said Escot, 21, who does not like to study anymore at that library. Gunman Colton Tooley, 19, killed himself on the sixth floor after running through campus firing his weapon, injuring no one.

Now, six months after Tooley’s actions led to a day long campus shutdown — and nearly 45 years after Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the UT Tower and fatally shot 13 people and an unborn child — lawmakers just blocks away at the state Capitol are considering allowing concealed handguns on Texas college campuses.

That would make Texas the second state after Utah to specifically allow guns on college campuses. Texas is one of 22 states that ban carrying concealed weapons on college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s one of nine states considering loosening restrictions on weapons on campus. Two states, Maryland and Washington, are considering bans.

Students such as Escot and Katie Stroh say that last fall’s shooting reinforced their belief that concealed handguns should not be allowed on campus. That morning, word of the shooting interrupted Stroh’s French test, and she and her classmates spent hours huddling on the floor with the lights off and desks barricading the classroom door.

“A classroom is someplace that people need to feel comfortable with each other,” Stroh said. “Just the possibility that someone might have a gun — I don’t care how many licenses people have — makes me feel extremely uncomfortable.”

But law student Tony McDonald said the incident shows why the proposed law is needed.

“The young man who came on campus walked past dozens or hundreds of students before he finally shot himself,” said McDonald, 23. “They had no way of protecting themselves.”

McDonald, senior vice chairman of Young Conservatives of Texas, said the proposal is more about day-to-day safety — like walking back to a car late at night — than mass shootings.

Under the proposal, concealed handgun license holders could carry guns into buildings at Texas colleges and universities.

University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told Governor Rick Perry in a letter this year that the presence of concealed weapons “will make a campus a less safe environment.”

But the proposal — which has cleared committees in the Senate and House — is likely to pass. The Senate passed a similar measure in 2009, and this year, a majority of House members have signed on as co-authors.

Perry believes that people with concealed handgun licenses and proper training should be able to carry their weapon with them anywhere in the state, said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for the governor.

The law as it is now “has the effect of disarming the law-abiding citizen, leaving him or her vulnerable to the deranged criminal who, without regard for the law, enters campus with a gun and opens fire,” bill author Senator Jeff Wentworth said during a committee hearing. “These situations are, of course, thank God, very rare, but they do occur.”

University of Texas graduate student John Woods said that the measure would only have made last year’s Austin shooting worse. Woods was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech in 2007 when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on campus, including Woods’ girlfriend, Maxine Turner. She was shot in the back of the head during her German class.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I arrived at this conclusion right away,” Woods said in an interview. “I spent hours agonizing over what happened in those classrooms. I needed to know where Maxine was. Did she suffer? She never even saw him come in.”

Solutions should focus on access to mental health services, not allowing more guns on campus, he said.

“There are so many things we could be doing to make sure no one walks through that door in the first place with the intent of doing harm,” said Woods, 27, a doctoral student in molecular biology.

At the University of Texas, the legacy of the 1966 Tower shooting still looms over campus, even for students who were born long after it happened.

“Sometimes it just hits you,” said McDonald, the law student. “You look at the Tower and you think about where you’d hide and what you’d do. But I don’t dwell on it.”

(Editing by Greg McCune)

Campus gun debate is personal at University of Texas