Update: Georgia has also just passed a ‘campus carry’ bill as of 3/11/16
Public universities across Texas are gearing up for a controversial “campus carry” law to go into effect this August. Passed by the state legislature last year, the law will allow students to carry concealed handguns on public university campuses.
Starting this fall, Texas will become the eighth state to allow concealed weapons on university campuses, along with Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Twenty-three other states give public universities the option of allowing concealed weapons on a school-by-school basis.
Will Bringing More Guns onto Campus Actually Make It Safer?
Texas’ campus carry legislation will become law on August 1, the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin Tower shooting, in which a sniper killed 14 and wounded 32. Critics of the law argue that in a time when mass school shootings are on the rise, bringing more guns onto campus is hardly the answer.
However, supporters of the law insist that it is the answer. Last December, pro-gun activists staged a mock mass shooting on UT Austin’s campus, complete with fake cardboard guns and ketchup. Their messaged was that an armed campus is less vulnerable to would-be mass murderers.
University leaders aren’t buying it. Chancellor of the University of Texas System William McRaven, a former Navy SEAL who owns several guns himself, has commented that “the presence of concealed weapons will make a campus a less safe environment.” Likewise, UT Austin President Gregory Fenves has written that “the presence of handguns at an institution of higher learning is contrary to our mission,” pointing out that all major private universities in Texas choose to prohibit concealed weapons.
Indeed, the consequences of the new law go far beyond physical safety. Students and academics worry that the mere possibility that people could be carrying concealed handguns at any time will have an oppressive effect on free speech and inquiry.
Will this lead to more censorship on campus?
In February, a presentation from the head of University of Houston’s Faculty Senate advised professors to “be careful discussing sensitive topics,” “limit student access off hours,” “drop certain topics from your curriculum” and “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger.” Universities are supposed to be places people go to encounter new perspectives and have their beliefs challenged, but the prospect of an armed student body might lead professors to skip over topics that could rub some the wrong way.
There are already signs that the Texas campus carry law and its potential effects on the academic environment are driving away faculty. In February, the dean of UT Austin’s nationally prominent architecture program announced that he is resigning as a result of the law. University leadership have also expressed concern that the law will interfere with efforts to recruit new faculty.
If I’m Not from Texas, Why Should This Concern Me?
Long story short then, the Texas campus carry situation is a huge mess pitting a state legislature with little knowledge of how universities function against an administration, faculty and student body that overwhelmingly condemns the measure. But what does this mean for you if you’re not a University of Texas Student? Just avoid the UT system and you’ll be fine?
Not necessarily. The Texas law is a showdown in a wider battle over the role of guns on college campuses. Traditionally, as with other kinds of schools, colleges have been accepted as institutions where guns have no place.
However, pro-gun activists have been chipping away at this consensus, with Texas becoming the eighth (and biggest) state to allow guns on campuses.
Given the national attention Texas’ campus carry law has received, it seems unlikely that people who want more guns on campuses will be content with this victory. Rather, it’s probable that pro-gun activists in other states will push for similar concessions from their university systems, and majority-Republican legislatures might take advantage of this issue as a way of making a political statement.
If the Texas campus carry law does turn out to be part of a larger trend, it could spell the beginning of a different kind of college experience for students across the country. A less safe college experience and, with a new fear in the air, a college experience with less discussion of controversial topics and any issues that could potentially provoke aggression.
In this scenario, the impact of campus carry on free speech will be felt most strongly in the social sciences and humanities. For example, University of Houston associate professor of English Maria Gonzalez commented that because discussions in her classes dealing with queer theory and Marxism often become animated, she’s uncomfortable with the possibility of her students being armed.
She also highlighted another aspect of campus carry she found especially disconcerting: the possibility for accidents. After all, everyone makes mistakes, and mistakes involving firearms can very easily turn deadly. Add to that the fact that not all college students are pinnacles of sound judgment and it’s easy to see why many teachers and students are anxious about the possibility of people carrying guns around classrooms and dormitories.
But uncomfortable or not, there’s not much they can do about it. The new law specifies that professors cannot ban guns from their classrooms. And the state appears ready to follow through to enforce campus carry – Attorney General Ken Paxton has threatened a lawsuit if students aren’t allowed to take guns into dorms.
Still, some professors are ready to give the fight everything they’ve got. Steven Weinberg, a physics professor at UT Austin and Nobel Prize winner, says he’s going to prohibit guns in his classes next semester and will go to court if necessary.
Ramifications Beyond Texas
This back-and-forth between state officials and university leadership illustrates another side of campus carry that has ramifications far beyond Texas. Public universities have always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the governments that control them. In particular, legislatures and other officials with little academic experience have the power to make significant changes in the way public universities operate, and sometimes use this power to score political points at the expense of students and faculty.
Last year, for instance, Wisconsin took center stage in the struggle between public officials and public education. Among other steps to “reform” higher education in Wisconsin, governor Scott Walker signed into law sweeping changes to the University of Wisconsin’s tenure system in 2015 and cut $250 million from the university’s budget.
When governments go to war on public universities, as in Wisconsin and Texas, the damage suffered by public higher education as a whole is real. University officials oppose overreach on the part of the state so vigorously because the ultimate consequence is that it gets harder to hire qualified faculty, and overall educational quality suffers. So no matter where you go to school, you feel the consequences of these battles in the form of a weaker public education system and resultant higher college costs.
In the case of the Texas campus carry law, you’ll also feel the consequences much more directly if a national rise in guns in the classroom leads to a less safe and less open learning environment.
Right now, the feeling among University of Texas leadership and many faculty is that things would be far better if concealed weapons on campus weren’t in the cards, but the fact is that they are and there’s not much that can be done about it, so the best approach is to try as much as possible to continue with business and usual and pretend that nothing’s changed.
Of course, this pretense will be dropped pretty quickly and Texas campus carry will be back in the spotlight if any Texas students ever end up using those guns they can now take to class. In the meantime, though, the disconcerting truth is that we don’t really know how campus carry’s going to play out, and all we can really do is wait and see what happens.
As Texas State University System vice chancellor told a SXSWedu audience in March: “time will tell if this is a wise law or not.”
By Niels V.