Texas Attorney General says public schools can't ban guns

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said public colleges cannot ban handguns on campus in a non-binding letter to State Sen. Brian Birdwell.

In late November, Birdwell wrote a letter to Paxton to seek his interpretation of Senate Bill 11, which was signed earlier this year by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Senate Bill 11 prohibits colleges and universities from restricting concealed handgun license (CHL) holders from carrying firearms on campus. The bill states that “all land and buildings owned or leased by an institution of higher education” must allow (CHL) holders to exercise their rights.

However, the bill includes a provision that arguably allows “private or independent institutions of higher education” to disregard the bill so long as students, faculty, and staff are consulted before reaching a decision.

Under this provision, several private colleges in Texas have stated they will not allow guns on campus, including Baylor University, Rice University, and Trinity University. However, public institutions must have plans to implement the new law by August of next year.

Due to the many nuances of the law, Birdwell wrote to Paxton to ask for his opinion of the controversial law.

“The Act prohibits public colleges from adopting any rule, regulation, or other provision prohibiting license holders from carrying handguns onto the campus of the institution,” Birdwell reminds Paxton in the letter, adding, “[f]or purposes of the act, 'campus' is defined to include 'all land and buildings owned or leased by the college’.”

Paxton, in a response obtained by WOAI, agreed with Birdwell and said any attempt to ban guns on a public campus would be “beyond one’s legal power or authority.”

"If a public institution of higher education placed a prohibition on handguns in the institution's campus residential facilities, it would effectively prohibit license holders in those facilities from carrying concealed handguns on campus, in violation of the express terms of Senate Bill 11,” Paxton wrote.

Although Paxton’s opinion is not legally binding, courts often consider an Attorney General’s interpretation of the law in difficult cases.

“A court would likely conclude that a public institution of higher education exceeds the authority granted under Senate Bill 11 if it prohibits the carrying of concealed handguns in a substantial number of classrooms or delegates to individual professors the decision as to whether possession of a concealed handgun is allowed in the individual professor's classroom,” Paxton added.

Many professors at public colleges have independently vowed to ban concealed weapons in their classrooms should their schools fail to move forward with legal restrictions. Some faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin have argued that guns on campus would violate academic freedom and make students afraid to express their opinions, thus violating their right to free speech.

At a campus carry forum held in November at Texas State University, several faculty members raised concerns about the new law and argued for “gun-free zones” on campus.

“There are many of us on this campus that make similar decisions that upset people,” Department of Accounting chair Ann Watkins said. “And guns aren’t appropriate.”

Paxton, in cases of gun-free zones, agrees that a lawsuit against the university or its officials would be an appropriate course of action if guns are outlawed on campus or in classrooms.

“An individual whose legal rights have been infringed due to a president or chief executive officer of a public institution adopting regulations that exceed the authority granted in Senate Bill 11 would likely have standing to bring an ultra vires cause of action against the president or chief executive officer,” Paxton wrote, stating that a ban on guns is cause for a legal suit because such a ban would be “ultra vires,” meaning it is beyond the institution’s legal power.

Senate Bill 11 will take effect August 1, 2016.

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