AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A woman whose unborn child was killed by a sniper nearly five decades ago in one of the deadliest campus shootings in American history urged Texas lawmakers Thursday to reject proposals that would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons into college buildings and classrooms.
Claire Wilson James, now 64, was a freshman at the University of Texas and eight months pregnant in 1966 when Charles Whitman lined up his rifle sights and shot her through the belly as she was walking the campus plaza. She lay on the ground for 90 minutes while Whitman, positioned at the top of the campus tower, killed 17 and wounded 32 before he was killed.
"A campus is a sacred place ... very open and vulnerable" that doesn't need more guns, Wilson James, now an elementary school teacher, said at a hearing at the state Capitol.
She was among dozens of witnesses testifying for and against the campus-carry issue, including several with direct experience with mass shootings at Fort Hood in 2009 and at Virginia Tech University in 2006.
Former Army Sgt. Howard Ray was on Fort Hood when a gunman opened fire near where he was. Ray said the shooter fired several shots in his direction and he couldn't return fire because Fort Hood policy did not allow him to carry his personal weapon.
"I reached for it, and it wasn't there," Ray said. "That day is a clear message to me that our citizens should never be restricted in their ability to carry at home, in a university or any other place."
Texas is one of the strongest gun-rights states in the country and has allowed concealed handgun licenses since 1995. License holders must be at least 21 years old and pass a training course. They are allowed to carry their weapons many places, including the state Capitol where simply showing their license to security will allow them to bypass metal detectors.
But college campuses remain off limits for weapons and the campus-carry question erupted into one of the most contentious issues of the 2011 session before if failed. Supporters, including the Texas Rifle Association, are pushing the measure again, calling it a gun rights and self-defense issue. Thursday's meeting drew a large police presence outside the committee with at least four state troopers stationed inside the room or in the hallway.
Texas Tech student David Bloom, who said he has a concealed handgun license, said he wants to be allowed to shoot back if someone draws a gun in one of his classes.
"I'm not advocating vigilante justice. I'm just asking to be allowed to have something more than a ball-point pen," to fight back, Bloom said.
Thomas Sovick, who teaches a popular history of rock and roll class at the University of North Texas, said he got his concealed handgun license two years ago because he has been threatened nine times by students who were either upset by grades or generally unstable. He wants to be allowed to carry his .45-caliber pistol to class.
"I'm not worried about anything happening to me at home," Sovick said. "The only place I worry is in the classroom."
Opponents say allowing guns into campus buildings only increases the chances for violence, including suicide. University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who oversees nine campuses, wrote to Gov. Rick Perry this week saying students, parents, faculty and campus police worry that allowing guns into classrooms will create a culture of fear among students and teachers.
John Woods, whose girlfriend Maxine Turner was among the first victims killed by the Virginia Tech shooter, said someone carrying a gun would not have saved her. Woods is now a graduate student at the University of Texas and a spokesman for Texas Gun Sense, which opposes guns on campus.
"She was shot in the back of the head. A concealed handgun would not have done her any good," Woods said. "She never saw it coming."
The committee left the bills pending without a vote.