Proponents of Texas’s new campus carry gun law say it could help save lives in an active shooter scenario, since those with guns could theoretically intervene or defend themselves. But that rationale has lots of critics -- many of the them faculty members -- who say more guns won’t reduce violence and weapons have no place on college campuses. And the law itself has already led to one faculty casualty at the University of Texas at Austin, with the resignation of an actively teaching professor emeritus of economics who says being on a campus with untold numbers of firearms is simply not worth the risk.
“As much as I have loved the experience of teaching and introducing these students to economics at the university, I have decided not to continue,” Daniel S. Hamermesh, the Sue Killam Professor Emeritus, wrote in a letter to university administrators this week. “With a huge group of students my perception is that the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law.”
He added, “I cannot believe that I am the only potential or current faculty member who is aware of and disturbed by this heightened risk. … Anything that can be done to mitigate this risk should be implemented. Applying this law broadly will detract from both faculty well-being and from the national and international reputation of this university.”
After failed attempts in previous legislative sessions, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 11 earlier this year, making it legal for licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons into college and university buildings, including classrooms. The law takes effect next summer for public universities and in 2017 for community colleges. Seven other states have laws allowing handguns on campus.
Hamermesh, who’s taught at the university since 1993 and retired last year, was contracted to teach a large introductory economics class of about 500 students this semester and in each of the next two fall terms. He’s breaking his agreement to avoid teaching in Texas after guns become legal in his classroom.
Hamermesh said in an interview that, as a retiree, deciding to leave Texas is much easier that it is for other professors who are just starting or in the middle of their careers. But his decision and the factors that motivated it are real -- not just symbolic, he said.
“Partly because I have other alternatives and partly because I’m 72 and need the money not very much, it’s fairly easy for me to do this,” he said. “But with the number of kids I have in my class, the risk to me is greater than for people who have 30 kids in their class …. With campus carry the risk increased and I simply don’t wish to face that risk.”
Hamermesh has publicly advocated against campus carry before, so he said his decision wasn’t just motivated by the recent mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, a campus carry state, which killed nine and wounded nine.
But other faculty members in Texas have become more vocal since the Umpqua Community College shooting -- the third-most-deadly campus shooting ever, with the second-worst occurring at UT Austin in 1966 -- and another recent on-campus shooting involving two faculty members in Mississippi, another campus carry state.
Javier Auyero, the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Sociology at Austin, authored an op-ed arguing against campus carry this week that ran in Time, among other outlets. “Although this latest shooting took place halfway across the country, it hit close to home here in Austin,” Auyero wrote. “With campus carry, social, political or academic interactions will have the potential to explode in lethal violence. We knew that before the campus carry law passed, and we know it now.”
Auyero is member of the group UT Gun Free, which has held several anti-campus carry forums on campus in recent weeks and garnered nearly 4,600 signatures on an anti-campus carry petition. He referred questions on Hamermesh’s departure to the group’s organizers. Paloma Diaz, a scholarly programs director and faculty liaison with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies on campus, said via email that Hamermesh’s decision “sends a strong message.”
Another member of UT Gun Free, Lisa Moore, a professor of English, also has spoken out against the campus carry law in the wake of the Oregon shooting. In an interview with The Trace, Moore explained how she thought the law would inhibit classroom discussions, especially those on more controversial topics, at the expense of academic freedom and student learning.
“I try to endow my students with the ability to talk openly about religious differences; it’s an important skill for an educated citizenry,” she said. “In the past, I’ve had students flip desks and leave the room. Which is fine, because something can be learned from that. But that’s different than a student pulling a gun -- no one learns anything in that situation. And maybe the student who flips the desk might refrain from doing it if he thinks his classmate is armed. In that sort of environment, I’m going to be much less willing to go into deep and controversial issues, which is a huge loss, since, later on in life, they’ll have to grapple with deep and controversial issues.”
David Smith-Soto, a senior lecturer of multimedia journalism at the University of Texas at El Paso, started protesting SB 11 earlier this year, when he put a “no guns” sign outside his classroom door. He made his message more public with an op-ed in The Huffington Post following the Mississippi shooting at Delta State University, just a day before the Umpqua shooting.
“It is not our job as university professors to engage in gun battles in our classrooms,” he wrote. “In a civil society of laws, we must depend on law enforcement to battle the gunmen. That is why I consider the campus carry law a betrayal by our elected officials. Instead of protecting us and contributing to the common good, they are putting us in mortal danger. While they revel in this little victory in their make-believe world of right-wing politics, we are left facing real guns in our lecture halls.”
Smith-Soto also criticized an aspect of the new law in which institutions are left to define which spaces on campus will allow guns and which won’t (blanket bans are prohibited), calling it proof that the law as a whole is “bogus.”
“Why should one part of the campus or one program at the university be selected to be gun-free?” he wrote. “Would that be because the presence of guns is disruptive, dangerous, threatening? Then that reasoning should apply to the entire campus. It implies that carrying a concealed gun on campus is so dangerous that some areas, perhaps programs such as child care and some laboratories, should be gun-free. Therefore, the entire university should be gun-free.”
In an interview, Smith-Soto said he still has his “no gun” sign up in his classroom, but that he’s moved it inside the door as not to foist the policy on other professors, since it could be illegal.
He said enforcing his policy could cost him his job, but that he’ll keep doing it.
“I intend to cancel the class if anybody comes in and [says] he or she has a gun, and I’ll continue to do that until there are no guns in my classroom,” he said. “If I have to keep canceling class they’ll have to fire me, I guess.”
Mary Aldridge, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association, which represents the interests of college faculty and support staff, said the vast majority of the group’s members opposed campus carry in a summer poll. And opposition has only grown louder in light of recent events, she said.
“Faculty on many of our campuses are actively involved in trying to mitigate the rules,” Aldridge said. “There are faculty I know who are looking for jobs elsewhere but for obvious reasons don't want to make this public until they find something.”
Gary Susswein, a spokesman for the UT Austin, said via email that the university, as required by the new law, is gathering input from faculty, staff and others about how to comply with the campus carry law while ensuring safety. He said the university understands the concerns Hamermesh and other faculty members have raised about their classroom safety, and asks “that the campus community continue to work with university leadership in developing policies for implementing this new state law.”
Susswein noted that the University of Texas System's chancellor, Adm. William McRaven, retired, shared his position on campus carry -- that it would make campuses less safe, not more -- with the legislature before it made it law.
Hamermesh said while the university might have done more to advocate against the legislation, he in no way blamed it for the new law.
“This is Texas,” he said. “These [legislators] will do anything they can to cater to the right-wingers.”
Asked if he thought other faculty members might follow suit and leave the state, Hamermesh guessed they wouldn’t. But he said recruiting top faculty members might be harder with the specter of guns in their classrooms.
“Faculty are a very risk-averse group, except when it comes to ideas,” he said. “This might scare away good people.”