AUSTIN, Texas -- Chanting, "Gun-free UT. Make it safe for you and me," and, "Guns are not a teaching tool. They do not belong in school," more than 200 attendees at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting marched to the Texas Capitol Friday to protest the state's new "campus carry" law.
The law, which will take effect this year, allows guns into public college classrooms and dormitories -- much to the anger of many professors at Texas and elsewhere. Many other states are considering similar legislation, although bills in other states would give public colleges more leeway to block guns from some locations. Texas, where conservative lawmakers control the Legislature, has in the past few years passed numerous laws to loosen or eliminate controls on guns. For example, starting this year, guns are allowed in state psychiatric facilities.
But it is the law permitting guns on public college campuses that has particularly upset faculty members. They built their protest around teaching and books, talking about how they need to create environments to discuss controversial works without any threat of violence.
Attendees first gathered at one of the convention hotels, where the MLA exercised its rights as a private organization to ban people from carrying weapons.
Roland Greene, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University and president of the MLA, said the association wanted Texas faculty members to know that "we stand with you."
He said he could think of many situations in his teaching career when "uncomfortable situations could have become a crisis," or "wouldn't have taken place at all," had it been possible to have guns in the classroom. Greene and others said that keeping guns out of classrooms was essential if people want open discussion to happen.
In between-session chatter and at the rally, MLA's involvement against campus carry drew widespread praise. Many members said they were proud to see the association use its meeting here to take a stand. The MLA is one of 29 scholarly associations that have jointly condemned the campus carry law.
The association is also pushing for public debate on the law in ways beyond Friday's rally. Diana Taylor, a professor of performance studies and of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University and a vice president of the MLA, published an essay in The Austin American-Statesman in which she recounted how her great-grandfather and her grandmother were in law enforcement and how her father took her duck hunting as a child. She wrote that they taught her about gun safety and how there are places where guns belong and places they don't belong.
"College is a transitional space and time of exploration, development and coming into adulthood or professionalism," Taylor wrote. "This is the place where we have always learned to resolve issues without the use of guns. 'Leave your guns at the door,' my grandma would say."
After the speeches, attendees streamed out of the hotel and marched eight blocks on Congress Avenue to reach the Capitol and then marched to the entry for more speeches.
At the Capitol, protest organizers made a circle of books to create what they called "a circle of safety" that should exist in classrooms where literature is discussed.
A bullhorn that broke early in the rally made it difficult for some speakers to be heard, but that did not stop repeated loud cheers as professors said they should have the right to keep guns out of their classrooms, and as they reminded attendees that laws once seen as unchangeable (like the ban in Texas and elsewhere on same-sex marriage) have been defeated.
Many wondered on the march to the Capitol whether any of the pro-gun groups in Texas would meet them there. No one spoke out or was visibly pro-gun during the rally. But at the very end, after most attendees had dispersed, a man dressed in black rode a bicycle back and forth a few times past the rally area. One time he shouted, "Charles Whitman is alive and well." Whitman, with multiple guns, killed 14 people and injured 32 at UT Austin in 1966. He is not alive and well, having been killed by police the day he shot so many others. On another loop by the rally site, the man on the bike shouted, "Gun laws don't work. I have three unregistered guns."
Students for Concealed Carry, a pro-gun group, was not visible at the rally but did issue a press release mocking the MLA's plans for a rally.
The group also posted to Twitter (at right, below) an image of the way it imagined the MLA's protest.
The press release said: "Members of the Modern Language Association, concerned that Texas will soon allow the licensed concealed carry of handguns in university buildings, have decided to examine the new law, study the 20-year history of licensed concealed carry in Texas, research the experiences of the many U.S. colleges that currently allow concealed carry in campus buildings and publish a detailed analysis of the issue and its potential impact on -- just kidding; they decided to build a book fort in front of the Texas Capitol."
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