Texas colleges open with guns allowed in classrooms

Critics worry that new “campus carry” law will cause self-censorship and put students and faculty at risk.

Members of the University of Texas of the Guns Free UT group that includes faculty and staff protest against a state law that allows for guns in classrooms at college campuses, in Austin, Texas
Gun-control advocates, student activists and professors have protested against the law [Jon Herskovitz/Reuters]

Denton, Texas – As history professor Todd Moye returned to campus after the summer break, he felt a certain unease.

Under a new campus carry law in Texas, concealed handguns are now allowed to be carried in university buildings, including classrooms and dorms.

Moye, whose curriculum at the University of North Texas (UNT) centres on race relations in US history, told Al Jazeera that he worries especially about the presence of guns during lectures on topics that arouse strong feelings.

“Will I have to censor myself or tamp down discussions?” he asked.

“I’ve never had to lead a discussion while wondering whether someone in the room might get upset enough to shoot a fellow student or me. These are not the kinds of questions I want to be thinking about; I want to concentrate on how I can best teach my students.”

For most of the 36,000 UNT students, Monday was the first day of lectures since the state’s campus carry law went into effect on August 1.

The law stipulates that individuals must be at least 21 and have a valid concealed weapon permit in order to carry a gun on campus.

The law has been championed by gun advocacy groups, while gun-control advocates, student activists and many professors have protested against it.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” Raneisha Lawes, an undergraduate student, told Al Jazeera as she waited for her ride in the drizzling rain. “I feel like guns don’t have a place on school grounds at all.”

While public universities are obliged to respect the law, private academic institutions have the chance to opt out. Dozens of private universities in Texas have decided to ban campus carry, while only one will permit it.

State law still bans weapons from some campus areas, such as hospitals and sporting events. A handful of schools have also allowed professors to ban concealed carry in their offices as part of gun-free zones.

Sex-toy protest

Opponents of the new law argue that the presence of guns on campus can put students and faculty at risk of self-censorship, intimidation, threats and gun violence, while others point out that it heightens risks for students who may be suicidal.

Last week at the University of Texas (UT), in the state capital of Austin, hundreds of students protested against the law and mocked its supporters by brandishing sex toys – an act considered illegal under local indecency laws.

Richelle King, a student organiser and senior gender and women’s studies major at UT, said protests need to be supplemented by a sustained campaign of voter registration and lobbying state politicians in order to repeal the law and prevent future bills like it from passing.

“[The law] causes a huge shift on the college campus because it normalises gun use; it normalises having a weapon,” King told Al Jazeera by telephone.

“I think that’s incredibly damaging to marginalised identities who already face exponentially more gun violence and police brutality in general,” she said, explaining that gun violence puts marginalised demographic groups such as people of colour, the LGBT community and transgender people at greater risk.

A recent poll conducted by the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis found that 79 percent of black voters, 66 percent of Latino voters and 47 percent of white voters do not support the campus carry law.

Texas is one of eight US states allowing guns in college buildings [Jon Herskovitz/Reuters]
Texas is one of eight US states allowing guns in college buildings [Jon Herskovitz/Reuters]

More than 100,000 Americans are killed or injured by gun violence each year, according to The Joyce Foundation, an organisation that lobbies for gun control and policies to reduce and prevent gun violence.

The Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national advocacy group, issued a condemnation of campus carry on August 1, the 50th anniversary of a mass shooting that left 14 students dead and more than 30 injured at the UT in Austin.

“It is disturbing to witness the new guns on campus law go into effect on the anniversary of one of the deadliest school mass shootings in American history,” Alexander Chasse, a volunteer with the organisation, said in the statement.

“The implementation of this dangerous law on this anniversary is yet another example of tone-deaf Texas lawmakers kowtowing to the gun lobby and ignoring the safety and concerns of the majority of Texans including faculty, staff, campus police and students.”

On August 22, a federal judge denied a preliminary injunction to three UT professors seeking to raise a legal challenge to the law.

The professors, who sued the state and their university, argue that the presence of firearms in classrooms can have a chilling effect on their ability to exercise their right to freedom of speech, as protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was named in the lawsuit, said he was “pleased” with the judge’s decision.

“The right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed for all Americans, including college students, and I will always stand ready to protect that right,” he said in a statement.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), a right-wing nonprofit organisation that lobbies politicians to push policies deregulating gun control, has campaigned in support of campus carry in Texas and elsewhere.

The group has vowed to continue backing and pushing for similar bills in all 50 US states. Including Texas, eight states now allow students to carry guns into college buildings.

‘Fundamental right’

Kendrick Melville, a fourth-year history student at UNT, said he ultimately supports the campus carry law, although he believes people should be “judicious”.

“You have the right to self-preservation,” he told Al Jazeera, sitting outside a coffee shop on campus. “That’s a fundamental right.”

His friend Kyle Allen, who studies international relations, nodded in agreement. “I agree that overall people with the proper licensing should be allowed [to carry a concealed weapon on campus],” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t disagree with efforts to make it more regulated – such as better background checks.”

But Professor Moye said he was “incensed” by his university’s ruling that teachers cannot ban guns from their classrooms or offices.

“Our representatives talk a lot about the need for local control, but under this law I can’t even control my own office,” he said.

“Will I have to worry about what’s in every student’s backpack? Should I only hold office hours in public, well-lit places with potential witnesses just in case the worst happens?”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera