01.23.13

Texas Shooting Puts New Spotlight on Issue of Concealed Weapons on Campus

The Lone Star College incident left three people injured, two in custody, and one charged—and shook up a Texas state senator’s bid to allow concealed weapons on campus. Christine Pelisek reports.

Just one week after a Texas state senator filed legislation to allow concealed handguns on the state’s college campuses, a scuffle between two men at Lone Star College, 20 miles north of Houston, left three people injured and the two shooters in custody.

The incident, which occurred around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, sent the campus into lockdown and students into evacuation mode. A 22-year-old man identified as Carlton Berry has been charged in the shootings, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff's Office. Berry was among those injured, the office said.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to those impacted by the terrible event at Lone Star College today,” read a statement issued by State Sen. Brian Birdwell, the man behind the proposed bill. “Though few facts or details have been confirmed as of late afternoon, the basis for filing the Campus Personal Protection Act remains the same. This legislation is about ensuring that law-abiding citizens are able to defend themselves. It's about trusting citizens with their rights."

Senate Bill 182 would allow students, faculty, and staff with a concealed handgun license to carry firearms for personal protection on college campuses in Texas. It also states that colleges or universities may not dodge the law by imposing administrative bans or penalties on students or employees lawfully carrying the guns on campus.

Currently, Texas is one of 21 states that ban concealed handguns on public campuses.

Details of the Lone Star incident are still unclear. Police say they received a call at 12:51 p.m. CT that there were shots fired in the center courtyard of the campus, and they arrived less than two minutes later. By the time they got there, the shooters had fled, but within minutes police had apprehended one of the men and took the other into custody within about 90 minutes.

Texas State University Police Chief Ralph Meyer says he is fearful of the heroes who “think they are doing a good deed and will wind up shooting the wrong person.”

The campus was locked down, a SWAT team began searching buildings, and some students had to be evacuated. The school reopened about an hour and a half later. The three injured victims included a gunman and a janitor. A fourth victim, a female in her 50s, was rushed to the hospital with chest pains.

By 2 p.m., the official college Twitter account reported: "Shooting around 12:31 today at LSC-North Harris between two individuals, three shot. Danger has been mitigated. Situation under control."

Less than 30 minutes later, the Harris County Sheriff's Office reported that one of the suspects was in custody. He was described by a local paper as “a black male wearing a red Atlanta Falcons hat and red shirt, and was last seen running from one building to another.”

Texas, with its rich gun culture and a robust public-school system that contains 38 public universities with some 500,000 students, has become a prime battleground for the concealed-weapons-permit issue. Birdwell’s bill isn’t the first rodeo for such gun legislation on Texas campuses—former state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican, put forth a similar bill last session.

Advocates for allowing concealed guns on campuses say if more people carried guns, it's more likely one of them could stop a gunman before he hurt anyone. Opponents argue that it would make campuses even more dangerous.

"UT Austin's position about guns on campus has been consistent,” said Gary Susswein, director of media relations with the University of Texas at Austin. “We do not believe it is necessary or appropriate to allow guns on campus. We do not believe that allowing guns on campus will enhance campus safety or security."

Ralph Meyer, Texas State University’s police chief, says the issue has been a contentious one since the shootings at Virginia Tech.

“Every legislature since Virginia Tech has been dealing with the subject and whatever they say, we will make the necessary arrangement,” he said. “If they pass to it we will deal with it.” But, he says, “I don’t think it is a good idea.” Meyer says he is fearful of the heroes who “think they are doing a good deed and will wind up shooting the wrong person,” and that students will see someone with a concealed weapon and it will result in campus mayhem.

“And now I have to close down the campus looking for a gun because the student didn’t conceal it good enough,” he said. “They will text their mother and say, ‘I’m sitting beside someone and part of a pistol is sticking out of his briefcase and they call police and we have to send everyone home. I am not against concealed weapons, but the thing that scares me is officers injuring the wrong person.”

Meyer said if the law is passed, gun holders wouldn’t have to register with campus police. “We have 500 acres and 34,000 students. We wouldn’t be able to keep track of who has guns and don’t have guns.”

Student leaders are divided on the issue as well. A poll conducted two years ago at the University of Texas at San Antonio showed that 66 percent of students are against concealed weapons on campus. Last November, the University of Texas student advisory council, which represents all the 30,000 UT students, passed a resolution banning students from carrying. If Birdwell’s bill becomes law, the council says, concealed guns should be a campus-by-campus decision rather than a statewide policy.

“We are against concealed weapons on campus,” said University of Texas at San Antonio President Xavier Johnson. “It was safety concerns for the most part. It definitely hits home for students on campus. I don’t think there is a direct fear, but they want their opinions heard.”

One student who is for having concealed weapons on campus is 31-year-old Steve Sanders, an accounting major at Lone Star College and the president of the college’s Second Amendment Academy, an educational student organization whose focus is “toward educating the general public in regards to the safe and proper use of firearms.”

“If you have a concealed-weapon permit you are responsible enough and know enough to stop someone,” said Sanders. “You are trained to know to use that kind of force and when it is appropriate. They train not to shoot to kill but shoot to stop. If I was there and I had a handgun I would have run over there and stopped it. I might have made a target of myself, but if I die or get hurt because I am serving my right to bear arms and protect the innocent, that is perfectly fine. If it saves an innocent’s life it would be my duty as an American citizen. If I did die, it would send a message to someone to not use deadly force on someone who is innocent. I don’t think we should have to live in that sort of fear.”

Sanders, who has a personal collection of guns that includes AR-15 and AR-10 semiautomatic rifles, says security on the campus is lax, and there may not have been a shooting if students were allowed to pack. “My first reaction was, what a piece of garbage for allowing yourself to get to the point where you are trying to kill someone,” he said. “And then, great, there will be more momentum for the anti-gun left-wingers. We really didn’t need this. This isn’t helping anybody—it is more fuel on the fire. If we were allowed to carry guns these two would have thought twice. They know how lax the security is. I can walk around the campus for an entire day and not see security. They don’t make a big presence on campus. If they did it might have changed things.”

“Our society is based on guns,” adds Sanders. “It is a strong ideal we hold. The last time an oppressive entity tried to remove our guns, the War of Independence occurred. If there were more concealed-weapon-permit holders I think it would save more lives than it would cost.”