A University Debates How to Carry Out a Divisive Guns-on-Campus Law

October 15, 2015

Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman via AP
The U. of Texas at Austin, like other institutions across the state, is sorting out the details of how to comply with legislation that, starting next fall, will allow concealed handguns on their campuses. Above, a protest on the flagship's campus.
On August 1, 2016 — exactly 50 years after a student named Charles Whitman climbed into the University of Texas tower and shot 46 people, killing 14 of them — a new law on concealed firearms will take effect here. Already, emotions are exploding.

The law, known as SB 11 or "campus carry," will allow people who hold concealed-handgun licenses to bring their weapons into public-university buildings, including classrooms and dormitories, across the state.

The legislation applies to private four-year colleges as well, but they can opt out. Starting in 2017, it will apply to community colleges too.

The fact that the rollout coincides with the anniversary of one of the most infamous mass shootings in history isn’t lost on either supporters or opponents of the law.

Depending on your viewpoint, allowing people to carry concealed handguns could make the campus safer by giving potential victims a chance to fight back. Or it could make the campus a much more dangerous place. Some have raised fears that professors would be afraid to discuss provocative topics, or that distraught students would be more likely to harm themselves or others.

Against this backdrop of fiercely held and conflicting beliefs, a 19-member committee, appointed by the flagship campus’s president, Gregory L. Fenves, is struggling to devise recommendations on how to carry out the new law.

The committee’s work, which is likely to be closely watched in states, like Wisconsin, that are facing the prospect of similar laws, shows how polarizing the debate over guns on campuses is.

Texas law has, for 20 years, allowed licensed gun owners, who generally have to be at least 21, to carry concealed handguns on campus grounds. The change that has people here on edge is that the law would extend that into campus buildings.

As a last-minute compromise, lawmakers added a provision to give universities the discretion to set "reasonable rules and regulations" that would establish limited gun-free zones, as long as those rules do not have the effect of prohibiting license holders from carrying their guns on the campus.

In addition to meeting with students, faculty, and staff, the working group has been studying the experiences of seven other states, including Utah and Colorado, with similar right-to-carry laws. None of the other states, however, give universities the wiggle room that the Texas law does to designate gun-free zones, said Steven J. Goode, a law professor and chairman of the working group. "We’re on our own there."

The group plans to submit its recommendations to Mr. Fenves by the end of November. He and his staff will devise rules that, to go into effect, must be approved by the system’s Board of Regents, probably at its February meetings. (The regents could also amend the rules.)

Powerful Voices Ignored

Mr. Goode said his group had received more than 3,000 comments about the law, with the overwhelming majority from people who oppose it.

Opponents of the law are pushing for widespread restrictions that would ban guns in classrooms, dormitories, and faculty offices. Among them is Javier Auyero, a professor of Latin American sociology who wants the working group to dedicate a few buildings for faculty members and students who aren’t comfortable teaching or learning in a classroom with guns.

Mr. Auyero, whose research focuses on interpersonal violence, said that lawmakers who approved the campus-carry law ignored objections from officials like the chancellor of the University of Texas system, William H. McRaven, a four-star admiral and Navy Seal who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and the chief of the Austin City Police, Art Acevedo.

"I suspect they know a thing or two about situations in which guns are involved," Mr. Auyero said.

A few supporters of the law also spoke up at one of two public forums that have been held over the last month.

Justin Stone, a first-year law student who holds a concealed-gun license, said people like himself are trustworthy.

"We are not vigilantes," he said. "We are not a danger to this campus. We are not the bad guys you read about in the news."

Another supporter of the law, Tina Maldonado, is a senior administrative associate in the campus’s Applied Research Laboratories. She told the panel that holders of concealed-handgun licenses are law-abiding citizens who should be trusted with their weapons.

Ms. Maldonado, who is also a firearms instructor, said some of the deaths that occurred in the recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, might have been avoided if someone other than the killer had been armed.

"There was no one licensed to carry in any of those classrooms," said Ms. Maldonado, "no one to protect themselves against that monster."

But those views are in the minority here.

Petitions and Protests

As of Wednesday a petition asking Gov. Greg Abbott to repeal the law had attracted nearly 7,000 signatures.

In addition, more than 600 faculty members on the Austin campus had signed a petition objecting to allowing guns in their classrooms.

Among those protesting the new policy were 52 members of the flagship’s psychology department, who signed a statement this week saying there was no evidence that having concealed guns on campuses would make students safer.

"Shootings give rise to situations marked by panic, confusion, and terror, conditions under which judgment, especially among individuals who are untrained and inexperienced in such situations, is impaired," the statement read.

Many of the professors joined protests on the campus, wearing orange T-shirts proclaiming "Gun Free UT." They said they were particularly worried about allowing guns in the psychology building, which, in addition to classrooms, houses a day-care center and a student-staffed mental-health clinic.

"One of the issues that has been bedeviling us is what to do about mixed-use buildings," Mr. Goode said. "What about a building with labs containing chemical or explosive materials, where an accidental gun discharge could cause a catastrophe? Should that lab be off limits, but guns allowed in a classroom wing? Will you have a sign here and not there? At some point, it becomes impractical."

Both Mr. Goode and Mr. Auyero said they worried the campus-carry debate would hurt the university’s reputation and make it harder to recruit faculty members and out-of-state students.

A teaching emeritus professor of economics, Daniel S. Hamermesh, publicly resigned last week, citing the law as a reason he’s stepping down.

In one of the more bizarre acts of protest, some alumnae and students are urging people to carry giant dildos in their backpacks to show what they consider to be the absurdity of banning sex toys but allowing guns. Their campaign, with its hashtag #CocksNotGlocks, has attracted national attention.

‘The People’ Have Decided

Meanwhile, the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Allen Fletcher, a Republican, said fears of the bill’s impact were overblown. Very few students will be carrying guns, he said, and fraternities, which are off campus, will be off limits.

"We have seen television ads depicting wild fraternity parties, clubs, and bars, none of which have anything to do with this bill," Mr. Fletcher said in a prepared statement in May, when the Texas House approved the measure. "Students 21 years of age and older have been lawfully and responsibly carrying in Texas for over 19 years, they’ve been able to carry their concealed handguns in public and on campus grounds, but the moment they step foot in an academic building they became criminals."

In an interview on Wednesday, he warned the university not to come back with rules that ban guns in most classrooms.

"It’ll be a waste of a lot of people’s time if they come to us with a blanket ban saying no guns in classrooms," Mr. Fletcher said. "Guess what — they don’t get to make that decision. The people of Texas get to make that decision, and they already did."

In addition to the discussions about gun-free zones, the Austin committee is studying how concealed guns should be carried. One possibility is requiring that the weapon be holstered, the trigger covered, to minimize the chances that it will accidentally go off. In states with concealed-gun laws, the committee found three examples of guns' accidentally discharging, including one case in which a professor literally shot himself in the foot when a gun in his pocket went off.

Meanwhile, the committee will continue to struggle to find middle ground between two camps with strongly held beliefs — a stance that keeps the campus safe while complying with the law.

"Some people think the carrying of concealed handguns makes a place safer, and others think it makes it less safe," said Mr. Goode. "There is not a lot of communication between those groups that is effective. We just have to live with the fact that we’re trying to craft a policy in the face of two very different views."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at