After a gunman opened fire last week at an Oregon community college, killing 9 and wounding 10, President Obama bemoaned the “routinization” of our response. Oregon, it must be noted, is one of seven states that now have provisions allowing the carrying of concealed weapons on public post-secondary campuses. Gun rights advocates like the NRA seem to think that these provisions somehow will prevent such violence, although what happened last week seems to suggest quite the opposite, if it suggests anything about such laws at all.
But that hasn’t stopped gun advocates from pushing these provisions. The latest example, in Texas, has faculty members at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin fuming. Here’s some of what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote about it this past weekend:
I’m not sure if this meets the exact definition of irony, but it definitely meets the exact definition of insanity:
Across the country, there’s so much concern for college students’ emotional safety that some schools add “trigger warnings” to novels and other texts. But in Texas, there’s so little concern for college students’ physical safety that concealed firearms will be permitted in classrooms at public universities like the state flagship here.
This wasn’t the doing or desire of administrators and faculty at the University of Texas — most of whom, it seems, are horrified — but of conservative Texas lawmakers on a tireless mission to loosen gun restrictions whenever, however and wherever they can.
To be or not to be armed in Shakespeare class? Your choice!
Four months ago, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed SB 11, also known as the “campus carry” law, at a shooting range. The law permits the concealed carry of guns in dorms, classrooms, and buildings at state universities and community colleges, while leaving individual schools some latitude to keep parts of their properties firearm-free, extending the reach of a previous law that allowed concealed handguns on university grounds. The law goes into effect August 1, 2016 for public colleges and universities (and a year later for community colleges). As Bruni points out, that date marks precisely the 50th anniversary of one of the first and most infamous mass shootings at an American university. On August 1, 1966 at UT Austin, “an engineering student climbed to the top of the iconic tower in the center of campus and, for an agonizing hour and a half, sprayed the surrounding area with bullets, killing 14 people and injuring more than 30.”
Shortly after the law was signed, Gun Free UT — which consists of faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni — put together a petition on change.org, with the hope of sparking a mass movement against the law. So far, nearly 2,500 people have signed the petition, and the group has acquired almost 1,000 Facebook followers. About 200 UT faculty members have pledged to refuse guns in their classrooms.
In an impassioned article for Time magazine, Javier Auyero, the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Sociology at UT Austin, wrote:
As a member of the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, I wonder if we are just supposed to forget and carry on, pretending this is not an issue, writing it off as another instance of “how things are here in Texas”?
I fear that, given the letter of the law and the limited exceptions that it allows, we will have to get used to guns inside our classrooms.
I fear that the fact of sharing a classroom with students “packing heat” will stop shocking us as it now does.
I fear I should not even be writing this, as many gun rights activists take reactions to the extreme when an opposing view is offered.
Indeed, the “campus carry” law is not only about guns; it’s about academic freedom and free speech. Writes Auyero: “With campus carry, social, political or academic interactions will have the potential to explode in lethal violence. We knew that before the campus-carry law passed, and we know it now.” Lisa Moore, an English professor and one of the founders of Gun Free UT, told an interviewer:
The classroom is a safe space, and we need security there. We need to be able to provide an atmosphere in which young people can become uncomfortable with certain ideas, and we don’t want someone who will, when they’re uncomfortable, be able to shoot off a firearm. These students are at an age when they’re still not fully in control of their impulses, and they’re away from home for the first time. They’re very vulnerable. . . .
I’ve heard faculty say, ‘I’ll just give everyone A’s from now on. I’m not going to risk pissing someone off if they’re going to be armed.’ Others have said they’ll only lecture — they won’t allow classroom discussion because they don’t want things to get heated. Basically, we have to look at ruling out anything — any subject matter — that might seem provocative. It’s very strange. Shutting down dissent and free speech is the opposite of what should happen on a college campus.
As Joan Neuberger, a professor of Russian history, an old friend, and another founder of Gun Free UT, told Bruni: “If I know that there’s a possibility that someone will have a gun in his pocket, I can’t in good conscience get students to debate the way they do now.”
That was also the view of the chancellor for the University of Texas system, William McRaven. He was a member of the Navy SEALs who rose to the rank of admiral and helped plot the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. Before campus carry became law, McRaven told a reporter: “I’m an educator now, and my first priority is to the students and the faculty and the administrators and the clinicians.”
“I absolutely understand the Second Amendment,” he added. “I have spent my life fighting for the Second Amendment. You know, you have to ask yourself why did the founding fathers put freedom of speech as the First Amendment? They may have done that because freedom of speech is incredibly important, and if you have guns on campus, I question whether or not that will somehow inhibit our freedom of speech.”
Pressed to elaborate, McRaven echoed Neuberger’s fear: “If you’re in a heated debate with somebody in the middle of a classroom and you don’t know whether or not that individual is carrying, how does that inhibit the interaction between students and faculty?”
But it’s not even clear whether faculty members and others are free to object to the new legislation. According to Moore:
The legislature wrote into the law that if someone tries to prevent someone from a carrying a gun into the class, they could be fined $1,500 dollars a day. So I can’t put up a sign. I mean, I’m allowed to ask students not to bring cell phones into my class. How could that principle not apply to guns?
The law might even forbid me from stating in my syllabus that I won’t allow guns. To what extent that conflicts with “free speech” is another – but, at least for me, less important – legal matter.
Shouldn’t I tell prospective students and faculty that I am, in fact, profoundly afraid and that they should think twice about coming to the University of Texas? If we are honest, the law will effectively prevent us from recruiting highly sought-after faculty and students.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that students are frightened by the prospect of concealed weapons in classrooms. Auyero reports that many students are hesitant to tell their parents about this new development. “’If I tell my mother, she will transfer me,’ is the sentiment they express now,” he said. “I think parents are right to be concerned. I wouldn’t want my own sons to attend this university.” Adds Moore: “one student said, ‘I’m gay, and I already feel like a target.’ He’d been sheltered growing up, and thinking about being in class with someone who is armed and might hate LGBT people really scares him and makes him wonder if he made a mistake coming to UT.”
According to Bruni, “Private colleges in Texas can opt out of campus carry. Public colleges can’t. Will that make them less attractive to the taxpayers who have supported and need them? Andrea Gore, the chairwoman of the UT Austin Faculty Council, told me that she’s worried that ‘some parents won’t consider the University of Texas because of this.’”
To be sure, “campus carry” allows guns only for people with concealed-handgun permits, for which civilians must be 21 or older and have completed some training. Not many undergraduates are likely to meet those criteria. The new law also permits the university president to exempt certain areas, but administrators and faculty members fear that every such move will be legally challenged and prompt political retaliation. And exempt areas must be prominently identified as such, so, as Bruni notes, “students moving around campus would constantly be reminded that while guns might not be allowed over here, they’re perfectly O.K. over there.”
“A big majority of campus was against this,” Xavier Rotnofsky, the student body president at UT Austin, told Bruni, adding that he and others found it absurd and offensive that lawmakers acted knowingly “without the consent of the stakeholders.” As Auyero put it, “folks who neither teach nor do research, enacted a law that makes no sense for any of the parties affected, and now we have to deal with the consequences.”
In 2008, in the wake of campus shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois and in response to calls for “campus carry” legislation, the AAUP Annual Meeting passed a resolution which declared:
Colleges and universities closely control firearms and prohibit concealed guns on their campuses because they regard the presence of weapons as incompatible with their educational missions. The Ninety-fourth Annual Meeting of the American Association of University Professors endorses the reliance of colleges and universities on trained and equipped professional law-enforcement personnel to respond to emergency incidents. We call upon state legislative bodies to refrain from interfering with decisions that are properly the responsibility of the academic community.
Maybe just a few more guns find their way onto campus. Isn’t that a few guns too many, especially in an environment where excessive drinking occurs, among people at an age when anxiety and depression can be acute?
Do we really want to do anything at all to unsettle young men and women in the phase of life when they’re trying to polish the confidence and optimism that will help them tackle the world?
And what justifies a message and a climate of greater permissiveness about guns in a country that has witnessed so much shooting and so many funerals?
The students at Texas’s public universities are getting an education all right — into how perverse and nonsensical government can be.
To sign the petition protesting the Texas “campus carry” law go to: https://www.change.org/p/no-guns-in-our-classrooms-gun-free-ut