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The Anniversary Gift: Texas opens public universities to firearms

The most striking architectural feature of the University of Texas at Austin is the tower that sits atop a hill at the center of campus. It is a twenty-seven story limestone monolith; a “toothpick” according to one detractor, more suited to the New Jersey cityscapes that inspired its architect, than to the landscaped grounds and rows of squat Italianate villas that radiate out from it. The tower is, in many respects, the focal point of university life. The clocks that crown the four faces of the building govern time on campus, their bells punctuating daily routine. The silhouette of the tower supplies the monumental backdrop for university ceremonies such as graduations, as well as a canvas upon which the play of orange lights serves to announce sporting (and, occasionally, academic) victories. The tower’s wraparound observation deck affords visitors a cartographer’s perspective of the campus; it is the sort of view, one of an active mess of humanity and its fabricated environment in miniature, that inspires grandiose ideas. Indeed, it was on this observation deck that a young Marine once speculated to his friend that “a person could stand off an army from atop of it [the tower] before they got him.” (Lavergne 23)

Some years later, on August 1, 1966, the same young man put his theory to the test. He ascended the tower, carrying with him three rifles, a semi-automatic shotgun, two semi-automatic pistols and a revolver. The first victims were people who happened to be at the top of the tower itself, innocent obstacles to the shooter’s goal of occupying the observation deck. On securing the deck, the shooter barricaded the entrance and proceeded, methodically, to shoot students and workers as they went about their days on the paths, courtyards and gardens below.

From start to finish, over a period of ninety-six minutes, forty-six people were shot, fourteen of whom would ultimately die from their wounds. Newspaper headlines would soon announce the, “The Worst Mass Murder in the History of the U.S.” The day would be remembered as the beginning of a new, peculiarly American, era of devastating acts of gun violence on college and school campuses. The fiftieth anniversary of the shooting will soon be commemorated, on August 1st, 2016. This also happens to be the day that Texas’s Senate Bill 11 will come into effect.

SB11, a bill adopted last year in the red granite Texas State Capitol building, in clear line of sight of the UT tower, represents the culmination of a concerted effort on the part of Texas legislators and gun lobbyists to make college campuses “more accessible…and permissive” to carriers of concealed handguns. The bill permits holders of concealed handgun licenses to carry concealed handguns on university campuses in Texas. Independent and private universities may elect to maintain their own institutional weapons policies. But state universities, like the University of Texas at Austin, will be bound by the law and will only retain limited discretion to regulate concealed carry on campus. The bill instructs university presidents to prepare and publicize clear regulations regarding concealed carry on campuses with the proviso that they: “…may not establish provisions that generally prohibit or have the effect of generally prohibiting license holders from carrying concealed handguns on the campus of the institution.

Proponents of the bill have advanced two sorts of justification for its adoption. The first is pragmatic: SB11 will increase the number of gun carriers on campus and will, thereby, make college campuses safer because there will be more people in more places who can respond to acts of violence in kind. Thus, the bill’s author, Senator Brian Birdwell, describes SB11 as a “campus personal protection act,” pitching it as a response to the reality of a society in which people sometimes murder other people on college campuses. After all, as one County Sheriff noted in his submission to the legislature, the “police can’t be everywhere at once.”

In fact, there is a relevant (albeit isolated) historical precedent that SB11’s proponents were able to invoke in making this argument. At the time of the Tower Shootings, it being Texas in the 1960s, a number of the students and workers on campus had access to firearms. And, as news of the shooting spread, some of these people joined the police in attempting to engage the gunman in fire. Whether or not they were actually of assistance remains a contentious matter in the history of the event. In the debate over SB11, some speakers recalled that civilian shooters, whilst ineffective at disabling the sniper, succeeded in distracting him and drawing his fire. Others emphasized that the crossfire made an already complicated scene even more complicated from the operational perspective of law enforcement and may have wrought tragic delays in the provision of assistance to victims. Claire Wilson, the first person shot from the tower, who lost her boyfriend and unborn child on that day, appeared before the Senate committee on SB11 to testify that the crossfire from civilians prevented emergency services personnel from reaching her and other wounded people, as they lay in the shadow of the tower.

The second sort of justification advanced by the bill’s supporters is ideological: Americans have a ‘right to bear arms,’ and SB11 serves to protect this right – a right that some of the bill’s advocates attributed to an even higher authority than the Constitution. Senator Birdwell referred to the right to bear arms as “God-given” and declared that, “Rights that are granted by God are ours to protect. They are not to be delegated.” In the same vein, Birdwell’s Republican colleague Senator Charles Schwertner insisted that “no one should be forced to surrender their God-given, constitutional right to self-defense just because they set foot on a college campus.”

The arguments canvassed thus far will ring familiar to anyone possessed of a passing acquaintance with the tired debate over the place of guns in American society. Indeed, it became evident in the course of the legislative debate over SB11, that the bill’s proponents viewed the battle for the bill as continuous with a national war for enhanced gun rights more generally. “I am proud of the fact that the Texas Senate is making history while defending life, liberty and our Second Amendment Right,” said Lieutenant-Governor Dan Patrick.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the debate was the resistance of the bill’s proponents to engaging seriously with questions proposed by worried representatives of university communities, questions particular to everyday life on college campuses. Questions such as: How will the presence of guns in classrooms impact pedagogy and academic debate? How will the law affect the status and well-being of women and minorities on campus, especially given that concealed carry license holders in Texas are overwhelmingly male and white? What effect will the law have on student and faculty recruitment and retention? Will instructors be comfortable meeting with students to have difficult conversations on matters such as plagiarism? Will the law impact the way university police departments and mental health professionals navigate situations with students in crisis? How will state universities finance the implementation of the bill and related security measures? And what impact will such a significant state intervention in campus life have upon traditions of academic freedom and self-determination?

SB11’s signature into law was announced by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in June, at an indoor gun range. By that time, university administrators were already at work across Texas, attempting to develop protocols consistent with the statute. In August of 2015, the President of the University of Texas at Austin announced the appointment of an advisory committee composed of faculty, staff, students, an alumnus, and a parent of a student. The committee, the ‘Campus Carry Working Group,’ was charged with the job of providing recommendations about the form that the new regulations should take. The Working Group announced its recommendations on December the 10th, 2015, right in the middle of Fall Semester final exams. Whilst the ultimate form of any regulations remains a matter for the President, it is widely understood that the Working Group’s recommendations will provide the general basis for those regulations.

As a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Texas, I punctuated the tedium of grading finals by reading the recommendations. Until this moment, SB11, its passage through the legislature and the attendant debate, had all possessed a surreal quality for me. Now, reading the Working Group’s detailed discussion of which buildings and events should and should not be host to concealed weapons, the situation became pressing and real. The Working Group was carving up my quotidian world — all of it. Living spaces, dining spaces, working spaces, studying spaces and teaching spaces were being recast in terms of armed and unarmed zones.

The Group recommended that concealed handguns be permitted in the university apartment complexes reserved for graduate students and students with young families. And while they recommended that guns should be “generally prohibited” in the on-campus undergraduate dormitories where many of my students live, they stipulated exceptions so broad as to call into question the ‘general’ character of the prohibition, recommending, amongst other things, that licensed students should be permitted to exercise concealed carry rights in dormitory common areas such as study halls, dining areas and lounges. The ‘Nuclear Engineering Teaching Laboratory,’ whose presence on campus I had never suspected until reading the report will thankfully, and in accordance with federal regulations, remain a gun-free zone, as will the early child-care center I pass on my daily walk into work. On the group’s recommendations, people who have been assigned single-occupant offices (a group largely made up of university faculty members and senior administrators) may, at their discretion, designate their offices as gun-free zones. But my office, which, like all graduate student and adjunct offices in my department, is shared occupancy, shall remain open to concealed carriers, irrespective of the wishes of office occupants. The Colosseum-like football stadium on campus, which has an official seating capacity of just over 100,000, will remain a gun-free zone during ticketed sporting events. The libraries on campus, however, will not be gun-free zones. Nor, most arrestingly, will the vast majority of classrooms and lecture-halls be gun-free. Since I am neither a football fan, nor a nuclear engineer, it turns out that concealed weapons will be permitted in the spaces where I spend the majority of my life. I had never paused to consider that my office was a gun-free zone before, but that fleeting freedom now seems one of my most cherished. Especially since the otherwise reasonable occupant of the adjacent room, with whom I take most of my coffee breaks, recently declared his intention to start carrying his own firearm at school,“If my students are carrying, then I’ll be damned if I’m caught with my pants down!”

In Part E of the Report, entitled, ‘Why We Do Not Recommend Classrooms Should be Gun-Exclusion Zones,’ the Working Group reach a kafka-esque crescendo. They begin by noting that “every member of the Working Group – including those who are gun owners and license holders – thinks it would be best if guns were not allowed in classrooms.” Nevertheless, they continue, given that “the primary on-campus activity for most of our more than 50,000 students is going to class,” to ban weapons from classrooms would have the practical effect of generally prohibiting concealed carry on campus, placing the university in violation of the statute. The Working Group does consider one alternative to allowing guns in classrooms that, they reason, would probably be in accordance with the legislation: the measure of excluding guns from classrooms, but providing gun lockers at strategic points around campus so that concealed carriers would not be forced to leave their weapons at home or in their cars. However, the Group declines to recommend this course of action on the grounds that, “Every knowledgeable source we consulted unequivocally stressed the danger that accompanies the transfer of a handgun to a storage unit. A policy that increases the number of instances in which a handgun must be stored multiplies the danger of an accidental discharge.”

So on the 50th Anniversary of the Tower Shootings, the situation at the University of Texas at Austin is this: a group of persons who cannot be trusted to safely transfer their weapons from their person to a locker without accidentally discharging those weapons, will, for want of a better policy, be permitted to carry those weapons into classrooms full of young people.

The absurdity of our predicament has not gone without notice, or protest. The most prominent critic of SB11 is the Chancellor of the University of Texas system, Admiral William McRaven, no stranger to firearms after a forty-year military career (the capstone of which was leading the raid of the Osama Bin Laden compound). McRaven has publicly and repeatedly voiced worries about the chilling effect that the presence of weapons in spaces of learning might have on freedom of expression and academic freedom. He makes short shrift of claims that the bill would enhance safety on campus, “I’m a guy that loves my guns…I have all sorts of guns. I just don’t think bringing guns on campus is going to make us any safer. If you’ve ever been shot at, which I have, then you have an appreciation for what a gun can do.”

On the Austin campus, over 1,500 faculty and 1,700 graduate students have signed petitions against SB11, and 39 academic departments have passed resolutions and issued statements against the bill . The departmental statements make for sobering reading. Many bear witness to the specific features and vulnerabilities of the various academic communities that the university hosts. It is worth surveying some of these statements to get a sense for the deep apprehension with which the academic community regards SB11. The Center for Women’s and Gender Studies notes its endeavor to provide “a safe space for students to speak about sensitive issues in their classrooms, in our offices and when they engage with our staff and with one another,” and states that, “guns can never, even in the hands of licensed carriers, promote or preserve that space. They can only carry threats of violence and intimidation.” The statement by the faculty of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department opens with a spare and powerful sentence: “In this country, which devalues black life as one of its founding principles, the expansion of citizens’ rights to bear firearms facilitates the violent deaths of Blacks.” The Department of Spanish and Portuguese states: “As a racially, culturally, ethnically, and sexually diverse department, we are aware of the social-power dynamics behind gun culture and the potentially disruptive and dangerous state of affairs the law allowing concealed weapons in campus buildings will bring to our courses, pedagogies, freedom of speech and finally, our security and lives.” The Department of Theatre and Dance moves from a general claim about art: “…artistic work is created by building connections among people—within ensembles and between performers and audience members. This can only be achieved through mutual trust in one another and confidence in our safety,” to an obvious and practical point: “During the creative process, student artists often work in close proximity to each other and make bodily contact with other students, the floor and set pieces. The dangers of having firearms during choreography and contact movement exercises are excessive.” Finally, from the Department of Social Work, these compelling words: “As social scientists, we base our recommendations and interventions on rigorous scientific evidence. Research evidence is conclusive that concealed weapons do not reduce crime or violence. In fact, access to firearms increases the risk of violence and tragedies. We believe that permitting concealed weapons on campus will only create fear, intimidation, panic and harm. And because violence and intimidation are tools of social control, we stand in solidarity with other groups on our campus who are impacted disproportionately by violence including communities of color, women, individuals living with disabilities and members of the LGBTQIA community.”

The passage and implementation of SB11 raises interesting theoretical and legal questions about academic freedom and about the labor rights of a working community that has resoundingly voiced its desire not to work in the presence of firearms. But, as I face the state-sponsored insinuation of weapons into the spaces of my university life, I find myself singularly disinclined to pursue academic routes of inquiry into the legality and justifiability of SB11, or to attempt any political, historical or psychological diagnosis of the pathologies afflicting the institutions and people that enabled the bill’s passage into law. I applaud those who still have the stomach for this sort of work, but, as the 50th anniversary of a local atrocity approaches, and with it the coming into force of an absurd gift from the Texas legislature, grief and anger feel more apposite than the pursuit of understanding.

Gary Lavergne. A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman murders. Denton: University of Texas Press, 1997.

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