HOUSTON -- Across the rest of America, packing for college usually means gathering up books, clothes and maybe an iPod.
Here in gun-loving Texas, it could soon mean packing heat.
That's because a bill heading for likely approval in the state Legislature would allow gun owners who are licensed to carry concealed weapons to bring their firearms onto the state's college and university campuses -- zones where the carrying of any weapons is now strictly prohibited.
Determined not to allow a repeat of the Virginia Tech massacre in Texas, sponsors of the bill insist that allowing responsible students and professors to secretly carry their weapons might deter a potential gunman from attacking a campus -- or stop one who decides to open fire.
"The only people not carrying guns on college campuses now are the people that abide by the law," said state Rep. Joe Driver, a Republican from Garland who introduced the bill. "Criminals know campuses are a gun-free zone and they know they can go there and only find an occasional policeman. So we want to expand the zones where gun owners who are licensed to carry concealed weapons can protect themselves and others."
Proponents argue that the gun owners they are talking about are among the most responsible in the state: A license to carry a concealed weapon in Texas is granted only to firearms owners who are at least 21 who have passed a criminal background check and completed a special training course.
But critics of the proposal to allow guns on campuses vehemently disagree.
They fear that introducing firearms into college environments already saturated with youthful impulsiveness, social anxieties and alcohol is a recipe for trouble.
"Every professional involved with university settings says it is a bad idea to mix young adults on campuses and guns," said Rep. Lon Burnam, a Democrat from Ft. Worth who is leading opposition to the bill in the Texas House. "A college campus is supposed to be a special environment, not an armed camp. One professor said, 'Do you really think I want to be in the position of handing out D's and F's to people who are packing pistols?' "
The proposed law would include both public and private institutions of higher learning, but would grant private schools the right to enact their own prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons if they choose.
If the bill is approved during the current legislative session in Austin -- and backers say they have lined up enough co-sponsors in the House and Senate to virtually ensure passage -- Texas will be bucking a national trend against allowing guns on campuses.
In the past two years, legislators in 19 states have rejected similar proposals to allow the carrying of concealed weapons at colleges and universities, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
That does not surprise John Woods, a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin who earlier this month helped organize a rally to oppose allowing concealed weapons on the state's college campuses.
Woods was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a student rampaged across the campus, shooting to death 32 victims and wounding 23 others before killing himself. Nearly a year later, a student shot and killed five students and wounded 16 others at Northern Illinois University.
Woods was not near the line of fire in the Virginia Tech shootings, but his girlfriend was among those slain.
"Right after it happened, I thought, 'What would I do in such a situation?' Certainly, a gun came to mind," Woods said. "But everyone who was there told me it all happened too quickly, that a gun would not have helped. I did more research and realized that school shootings are really very rare. But suicide tends to be more common on college campuses, and the presence of a gun tends to make that potential much worse."
Yet concealed-weapons proponents argue that an armed student or professor could have made a difference at Virginia Tech.
"There were students at Virginia Tech who literally sat there videotaping the shooter, who stopped to reload," said Brett Poulos, a student at Texas State University who is the southwest regional director for a group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. "One of the students was able to stay on a 911 call for over 5 minutes. So any one of those individuals, if they had a concealed weapon, definitely could have stopped the shooter during one of his reloading sessions."
One thing at least is clear: If the proposed law is approved, there will be more Texans than ever who will be eligible to stash handguns in their backpacks.
Applications for concealed handgun licenses jumped to 12,587 in February, up from 7,626 in the same month last year, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times