Stop Worrying About Guns in the Classroom. They’re Already Here.

March 17, 2016

Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman via AP
A protest last fall at the U. of Texas at Austin.
If you work at a Texas college and are worried by the prospect of having guns in your classroom, relax. The new campus-carry law changes your risk of gun violence very little. I can almost guarantee that if you have a few semesters of teaching under your belt, at some point there have been students with guns in your classroom. If those illegally armed students were not moved to violence by the content of your course or the statements of their fellow students, it seems highly improbable that a new group of legally armed students will prove to be more volatile or violence-prone than their scofflaw peers.

 If you really think that there are no guns on college campuses in Texas, or elsewhere, because there is a law that forbids having guns on campus, you are mistaken. On my own campus in Arkansas, despite a strict prohibition on guns, in the last decade there has been at least one accidental discharge of a gun in a dorm room, several students who have been found to have guns in their cars, and at least one faculty member who was caught with a gun in on-campus faculty housing. And those are just people in "casual" possession of guns with no intention of causing harm or mischief who ran afoul of the campus police because they were foolish or indiscreet with them.

Given these incidents and what I know about the prevailing regional attitudes toward guns, I have to assume that significant numbers of students, and possibly faculty, bring guns on campus regularly. Some of these probably do so intentionally, having calculated that the perceived benefit of having a firearm available should they need it outweighs the very small risk of being caught with an illegal gun. On my campus, I suspect this group has increased in number since we had an active-shooter incident in December. It went as well as one of these things can. The "shooter" did not actually fire his weapon, and no one, including the guy with the gun, got hurt, but it still scared people pretty badly.

Even on campuses that have not experienced an incident like this, the intense media coverage of such events has created a perception of increased risk. For some people the response to that perception is to carry a gun, whether or not it is legal to do so.

The other people who are armed in your classroom are those who just plain forgot they had a gun in their backpack, purse, or jacket. If that sounds farfetched, remember that gun owners, just like other people, are occasionally absent-minded. It was just a year ago that a child found a loaded pistol in a toilet stall in the U.S. Capitol building. It had been left there accidentally by a police officer.

People try to get on planes with guns. I was working my way through the security maze in Charlotte a few weeks ago and passed no fewer than three signs reminding passengers that most of the guns that Homeland Security finds in people’s carry-on luggage are left there by mistake. The signs implored us to stop and double-check that there were no guns or ammunition in our carry-on bags.

I am sure that to many academics this sounds as implausible as forgetting that you left a venomous snake in your briefcase, but that probably happens to herpetologists every now and then because they get used to being around snakes. If some people forget that they have guns with them when they are about to get on a plane, it seems highly likely that students occasionally forget that they left a handgun in a car, bag, purse, or jacket when they are doing something as routine as going to class.

So, if you have been teaching for a while, some of your students (and possibly your colleagues) have probably been illegally bringing guns onto campus and into classrooms. So far, despite the presence of firearms, no one has shot you or any of your students intentionally or unintentionally, no matter how controversial the content of your course. What will change when legal concealed-carry permit holders bring guns into your classroom? Not much. Because permit holders’ guns will be concealed, any guns in your classroom will remain invisible, just as they were before.

Are concealed-carry permit holders a violent lot? No. In Texas they commit crimes at about the same rate as cops and at a lower rate than the general public. Texas requires that concealed-carry permit holders be at least 21, so most undergrads will not be eligible for a permit, and those who are will be a little more mature than the average student. Texas requires concealed-carry permit holders to submit photos and fingerprints with their applications, and the Department of Public Safety has up to 60 days to conduct a background check on applicants.

While it’s easy to dismiss students who want to bring guns on campus as victims of a culture of fear that overestimates the risks of daily life and the utility of responding to those risks with a gun, that argument can just as easily be reversed. People who are terrified by the prospect of a few students who have gone though background checks bringing concealed weapons to class are being just as irrational in their risk assessment as people who won’t leave the house unarmed.

Speaking of flawed risk assessment, suggestions that Texas faculty avoid teaching controversial topics are predicated on the notion that students are so intensely engaged with the material in their classes that they are willing to risk doing 20 to life (and not receiving a passing grade) to challenge our ideas with gunfire. I find this utterly implausible. In every other context where we talk about student engagement, it is to decry its absence. This is especially true in the humanities (and I am guessing that it’s not the accounting faculty who are being advised to keep mum about their radical ideas on valuing inventories so their students won’t fly off the handle). Most of us complain that our students won’t even read, and now we are worrying about them being so engaged that they might throw caution to the wind and start shooting?

Cowboy up, Texas professors! Teach however and whatever you want. Don’t worry about the presence of legally carried guns in your classrooms. If you are going to worry, worry about someone illegally bringing a gun on campus with the intention of causing mayhem, not someone who legally carries a gun in the hope of protecting himself from harm. And those students whose faces cloud with anger when you attack their complacently bourgeois understanding of Jane Austen, they are probably just reacting to something on their phones. And, anyway, they’re too worried about their grades to shoot you.

Erik Gilbert is associate dean of the graduate school and a professor of history at Arkansas State University.