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Universities Can't Ban Guns In Dorms, Texas Attorney General Says

Photo Illustration by Todd Wiseman
Texas Tribune

Texas universities would violate the state's new campus carry law if they banned guns in dormitories, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a nonbinding opinion issued Monday afternoon. 

That opinion goes against recommendations made by a task force at the University of Texas at Austin, which suggested banning guns in dorms in a report to university President Greg Fenves earlier this month. 

Universities were given some leeway under the new law allowing concealed license holders to carry handguns on campus — they are allowed to declare some buildings gun-free. But the law says those gun-free zones can't have the effect of banning guns across campus; in other words, gun-free zones can't make it impossible to reasonably carry a handgun at all.

In his opinion, Paxton said banning guns in dorms would have that effect. Plus, he noted, the new law allows universities to create rules for how guns are stored in dorms. That provision, he wrote, "presupposes [guns'] presence in dormitories."

Paxton also said universities would violate the law if they ban guns in “a substantial number of classrooms.” No universities have proposed that type of ban so far, but many professors across the state have requested such a ban.

The University of Texas at Austin's campus carry task force, which was chaired by Steven Goode, a professor at the university’s law school and expert on criminal law, came to a different conclusion.

In its recommendations, the task force noted that two or more students occupy most dorm rooms. If a gun were stored improperly, someone other than the owner would have access, the task force said. 

“Consequently, we believe that the danger of accidental loss, theft, or misuse by roommates or others (including suicide or other violence) in on campus residence halls is unacceptably high,” the task force said.

The task force also noted that Texans need to be 21 years old or older to get a concealed handgun license. Almost 99 percent of UT-Austin students who are 21 or older live off campus, so the ban would only apply to the “tiniest fraction” of students, the task force said.

“And, as the data show, there are ample, and widely-used alternative housing arrangements available to those who wish to keep handguns in their rooms,” the task force said.

UT-Austin is currently the only major university considering recommendations that include banning guns in dorms, though many universities are still awaiting their task forces’ reports.

Paxton doesn’t weigh in on the safety issue; his opinion simply evaluates what’s in the law.

As attorney general, Paxton is the state's top lawyer. Public officials regularly seek out his opinion when there's some confusion about how a law should be interpreted. In this case, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the author of the bill, asked for Paxton to weigh in. 

Schools don't necessarily have to listen, however, and could still try to ban guns in dorms. If they do, they'll likely face legal challenges from campus carry supporters.

Officials from the UT System have ignored opinions in the past. In May, Paxton told the UT System that it should hand over confidential admissions records to Regent Wallace Hall. The system didn’t listen — and eventually won a court battle over the issue.

The campus carry law goes into effect Aug 1, and universities are still in the process of writing their rules.

A UT-Austin spokesman released a short statement Monday night: "President Fenves is reviewing all relevant information as he studies how to implement SB 11 safely and lawfully on our campus."

In another gun-related opinion released Monday, Paxton said that K-12 campuses — including sidewalks and parking areas — are to remain gun-free zones under the state’s new open-carry law as long as school-sponsored activities are taking place there.

"For instance, if a high school utilizes a school parking lot for a band rehearsal, that parking lot would likely fall within the scope of [the law] prohibiting weapons during the time of the rehearsal,” Paxton wrote. "Yet, the other parking areas at the school where school activities are not occurring would not fall within [the law] and would not be places where weapons are prohibited.”

Sen.John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, requested the opinion.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a law allowing license-holders to carry handguns openly in a hip or shoulder holster, changing current law requiring that such weapons be concealed.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.