Is the answer to mass shootings on college campuses to arm students and staff? Eight states are considering legislation that would allow people to carry a concealed handgun into the lecture hall, the library, or the dorm. Ground zero for the debate is Texas where a proposed law would remove "premises of higher education" as gun-free zones.
"Right now, so-called gun-free zones, I think, ought to be renamed Victims Zones," says State Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), who is sponsoring a bill that would allow handguns on campuses. "I just don't want to see a repeat in Texas of what happened at Virginia Tech."
Wentworth was referring to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, where a student killed 32 people on campus and injured many others before turning the gun on himself.
Last September, the University of Texas at Austin had its own scare. A 19-year-old math major named Colton Tooley, wearing a dark suit and ski mask, started shooting an AK-47 assault weapon in the air, then ran into a library and committed suicide. No one else was shot. Campus police were praised for their quick response.
Wentworth and other supporters of the proposed law say a citizen with a handgun can possibly take out a campus shooter before police arrive "because when seconds count, the police are only minutes away."
Two years ago, Texas lawmakers rejected a bill allowing concealed-carry on campus. Since then, Republicans have gained a supermajority in the legislature, and the controversial law has come back stronger than ever.
With 50,000 students, the University of Texas at Austin is one of the biggest schools in the country. Two years ago, the student government, faculty council and President Bill Powers came out against the bill to permit hidden pistols in university buildings. It's legal for license holders to carry on the campus grounds. Powers says his position has not changed.
"Friday night comes on our campus once a week," he says. "Mixing youth, handguns and partying is, in my view, a mix for serious concerns about safety on campus."
On a recent morning, Corey Zipperer, a 21-year-old UT psychology major, came down to the state Capitol to lobby officials to pass the bill. He's a spokesman for the Longhorn chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, and discreetly straps on a .38 special.
"We get the mature thing a lot, that college students aren't mature enough. And the alcohol thing, that we're all just boozed up all the time," Zipperer says.
In Texas, he points out, to get a concealed handgun license you must be 21 years old, have a clean record and no psychiatric disorders, and take a 10-hour instruction course that includes time at a firing range.
"So if people think that 21 year olds are too immature to get a license, it sounds like they have a problem with the whole concept," he says.
When John Woods came to Austin for graduate school from Virginia Tech, he thought he'd left behind the rampage that killed two of his friends. When the Texas legislature took up guns on campuses, Woods, a 26-year-old biology graduate student, stepped forward to become a leading voice opposing the bill.
"People think of colleges as just being classrooms, but there's a lot more going on here," he says. "We have hospitals on campus, in some cases there are preschools, sensitive labs where there are hazardous materials.
"And this is also something where the legislature is taking away higher education institution's abilities to make any policy on the issue."
At a table inside the student union, when math major Logan Healey was asked about the proposed conceal-carry law, he became sarcastic: "So, our suggestion to stop people from bringing guns to campus is to allow other students to bring guns to campus so we can have gunfights."
His friend Bethany Ellerbrook chimed in: "That's an awful idea. I hate it."
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that 22 states have rejected similar legislation. One that did not is Utah, where the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has had a concealed-weapon carry law for five years.
"I'd say the vast majority of our student body doesn't even know about that law, or if somebody does have a handgun in class, I bet you 95 percent of the people would never know about it," says Chase Jardine, president of the student body.
Asked his own opinion, he says he's indifferent: "It's just not a topic people talk about." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.