Professors at the University of Texas at Austin, my alma mater, are considering if and how their classes will be different this fall when, beginning Aug. 1, their students will be allowed to carry concealed handguns into campus classrooms.
Others have pointed out the irony of this particular date, which is the 50th anniversary of the day in 1966 when Charles Whitman lugged a small arsenal to the top of the tower that overlooks the campus and began to kill 14 people. The day was the iconic precursor of events that became so common that they acquired their own immediately understood designation: school shooting.
And a half-century later the only solution we’ve managed to come up with is to allow the students and professors to arm themselves.
The change is controversial. The UT system chancellor, the UT president, the Austin police chief and several of the state’s law enforcement agencies objected. In protest, a few faculty members resigned or retired, and last week three UT professors filed a lawsuit in federal court for the right to maintain their classrooms as gun-free zones.
Administrators and law enforcement are concerned that more firearms on campus means more shootings, accidents and suicides. The three suing professors have these concerns, as well as others.
They’re arguing that concealed handguns in the classroom will, according to my local paper, “chill their manner of teaching,” especially in courses that deal with “abortion, homosexuality and other topics that are often charged with emotion.”
This is the kind of reasoning that proponents of concealed carry and open carry find easy to dismiss as intellectual hand-wringing by effete liberal professors. In fact, Texas’ attorney general has already called the suit “baseless” and “an insult to the millions of law-abiding gun owners in Texas and across the country.”
On the other hand, it’s easy to underestimate the depth of passion that attaches to contentious subjects such as race, abortion and, for that matter, gun control. And since a significant element of a college education involves exposure to ideas outside the so-called comfort zones that students grew up with, the professors’ concerns are not unreasonable.
Of course, most people who have concealed carry permits are ordinary, law-abiding citizens. On the other hand, 30 Americans per day are murdered with firearms, and I suspect that a significant number of the murderers were ordinary citizens who were overwhelmed by the passions of the moment and turned to what increasingly seems like a feasible option, one of the 300 million guns in our society.
Here’s another concern: at the end of each semester college professors are required to make judgments about student performance and readiness for the next level. Sometimes these decisions have considerable impact on students’ sense of self-worth, and, especially these days, they involve considerable sums in tuition and fees.
In fact, assigning several hundred A’s or F’s at the end of each semester has the potential to ignite much more passion and anger than are typically faced by judges in traffic court or small claims court, places where our society still prudently forbids guns.
The desire to carry a concealed weapon into a classroom isn’t irrational, but concerns about the increased dangers that professors may face are far from “baseless.”
And neither are fears about the “chill” that the presence of weapons may create. It’s worth noting that the law that permits handguns in classrooms emanated from an extremely pro-gun Republican legislature and governor. Generalizing only slightly, their goal is virtually no firearms restrictions.
And if you can force weapons into the classrooms at a university that many Republican legislators see as a holdout of liberalism in a very conservative state, you make nearly anywhere safe for unrestricted open carry.
About the “chill” that the presence of weapons might induce: Texas legislators and top officials have very definite positions on subjects such as abortion and certainly gun control; a “chill” on discussion at a place like U.T. could be thoroughly in line with their agenda.
The fact is, even if a gun never leaves its holster, if it’s present, it’s always part of the conversation.
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John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected]