Commentary

Texas Picked an Ominous Date to Arm Its Public Colleges

July 27, 2016

LeAnn Mueller, Contour by Getty Images

In what appears to be an audacious act of public forgetting, a controversial Texas campus-carry law allowing concealed guns in university buildings is scheduled to take effect on Monday, August 1, the 50th anniversary of the University of Texas tower shootings.

The first mass murder on a U.S. college campus, the tower shootings left 14 people dead, plus the gunman, and more than 30 wounded. As in other more recent examples of mass gun violence, the shooter first used deadly force in a domestic setting — he killed his wife and mother before ascending the tower with an arsenal.

While on the University of Texas at Austin faculty, I taught a rhetoric course, "The UT Tower and Public Memory," which took as its point of departure the university’s most violent day and how that day had been remembered and forgotten institutionally, culturally, and publicly. In the 20 years since I first taught the course, public gun violence in the United States has become an epidemic. It now affects every person in the United States, though it affects different groups and individuals differently.

So despite my leaving Austin to return to Pennsylvania nearly 15 years ago, the Texas Legislature’s choice to allow such a law to take effect on that particular day has haunted me for months.

I have thought about my former colleagues and their future students and wondered how this law would affect the learning environment on campus, particularly in classes that take up controversial topics. I considered whether professors, staff, and students would be less safe — and more anxious — because of the law. I have worried about graduate-student and adjunct instructors, those who have little or no agency to demand or even request that no guns be allowed in their shared work spaces.

And for months I wondered how the effective date of the law could be a coincidence. Then, when I visited Austin a few months ago, I was forced to try to make sense of the situation because I had been invited to Austin to speak at a conference about public memories of the tower shootings in the context of the United States’ gun-violence epidemic.

The day before the conference, I called the University of Texas system, thinking that if anyone would be willing to reveal the machinations of the Legislature, it might be that office. The receptionist gave me an email address in the office of external relations, and after sending off my query about the date, this is the response I got:

"Hi, Rosa —

In response to your call this morning — yes the campus carry legislation going into effect the same day of the 50th anniversary is a coincidence."

Hunh.

Had it not been for the grackle showing up when I was sitting on the patio at Maudie’s on South Lamar for lunch later that day, that email from a "public affairs specialist" might have marked the end of this story.

The grackle is a loud-mouthed, poop-spewing bird — a hectorer whose scream is even more annoying than its mess: In groups, grackles aurally out-Hitchcock all the other fowl. Further, Chase Staggs, in a 1998 production of his "Tower Massacre Musical," figured the victims of the tower shootings as a Greek chorus of grackles.

Thus grackle-inspired, I called the governor’s office.

First I was transferred to a constituent’s line, where I talked to Linda, who wouldn’t give her last name. "What’s my last name got to do with it? And besides it’s hard to spell."

Linda Hardtaspell said she was "certain" that the date was a coincidence.

When I asked how she knew, she became flustered: "Ma’am, are you with the press?" So I thanked her and called the governor’s press office. Many "please holds" and a long story short, I have yet to hear back via phone or email from the office of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

And that was in April.

An unlikely helper on Twitter, @WhyConcealedCarry, did, however, offer some clues:

A Texas legislative House-Senate conference committee was directed to bring separate versions of the campus-carry bill into agreement. When public universities asked for time to develop policy around the impending law, and some legislators demanded that any campus-carry law apply equally to private as well as public colleges and universities, the date the law would take effect was changed from September 1, 2015, to August 1, 2016, the lawmakers apparently not realizing the significance of the date.

And so it was determined that the law allowing concealed carry in buildings on public four-year college campuses in Texas goes into effect on the 50th anniversary of the first mass murder on a college campus.

The Texas law exempts private colleges — and good for them. Yet what other conclusion can one reach but that the law targets — in this case the metaphor seems apt — public higher education specifically?

The Houston Chronicle reported that the author of the original bill, Sen. Brian Birdwell, said that requiring private universities to implement campus carry would infringe on their private-property rights.

And so I ask all of us who value public higher education and its role in making feasible collective self-governance: Who "owns" public colleges and universities? Whose collective rights are violated by the prospect of concealed carry in campus buildings?

Another coincidence will further complicate life on UT’s beautiful Austin campus next Monday.

The university has announced a rededication on August 1 of a Tower Memorial Garden and the unveiling of "a new memorial to the victims and those who suffered from the tragedy," according to a university news release. The tower clock will stop for 24 hours starting at 11:48 a.m., the time the shooting began 50 years ago. At dusk, the tower will be darkened.

It was a sad, horrific day, August 1, 1966. Perhaps just as sad is that 50 years later Texas lawmakers as well as the governor’s office, in claiming that the concealed-carry implementation date is coincidental, display a willful ignorance of so important a date in the flagship campus’s history. This suggests a lingering state of denial in the Lone Star State about the havoc caused by easy access to guns in our communities and, increasingly, on our campuses.

Clearly, that denial is not limited to Texas. Fifty years after the first campus mass murder, we would do well to ask ourselves and one another: Is this really the best that we, together, can do?

Rosa A. Eberly is an associate professor of rhetoric in the department of communication arts & sciences and the department of English at Pennsylvania State University.