On Aug. 1, 1966, in the city of Austin, Texas, on the campus of the University of Texas, gunman Charles Whitman arguably began the tragic trend of campus shootings that continues today. When I was in my second year of graduate school, attending classes and teaching quite literally in the shadow of the tower that Whitman had fired from, Texas Monthly published an excellent reflection on the event to mark its 40th anniversary. During Whitman’s assault from UT Austin’s iconic central tower, locals with firearms of their own returned fire. Notably, they used long rifles, not the handguns that many citizens carry today in legal concealment. They were not firing with sidearms at close quarters but with more accurate weapons over greater distances.
According to the 2006 Texas Monthly article, witness Clif Drummond reported, “Students with deer rifles were leaning up against telephone poles, using the pole, which is rather narrow, as their shield. And they were firing like crazy back at the Tower.” In the same article, witness Brenda Bell recalled, “I don’t know where these vigilantes came from, but they took over Parlin Hall and were crashing around, firing guns. There was massive testosterone.”
Even in 1966, opinion was mixed as to whether this citizen response had been harmful or helpful. Eventually Whitman was killed by police officers who stormed his position. Some of them claimed that the covering fire provided by citizens had reduced Whitman’s ability to take more lives than he did, while some victims present in the melee claimed that the return fire of untrained civilians created confusion and itself jeopardized the safety of those fleeing Whitman’s rampage. Importantly, by barricading himself in a protected and tactically advantageous position, Whitman’s assault was very different from most subsequent campus shootings. In those, assailants frequently appear to move from position to position and to not always choose those that offer the physical protection Whitman fired from. Had Whitman been moving about, he would have been more exposed, but the confusion of those firing back would also have been greater -- as would their chances of hitting an innocent bystander.
Now Texas, both the state and its public university system, finds itself at the fore of how to move forward within a society in which campus shootings are no longer novel but assumed to be nearly inevitable. Recently passed legislation has made it legal for students, staff and faculty to carry concealed weapons, but the law has left large portions of its implementation up to individual campuses. Only private colleges and universities in the state can opt out entirely from allowing concealed weapons on their campuses, and virtually all of them have, including conservatively aligned Baylor University. University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, a retired admiral and no stranger to the violence weapons are capable of, opposed the legislation.
Like McRaven, campus law enforcement leaders and associations oppose legislation that would allow concealed weapons on campuses, not on ideological grounds but for the simple reason that, if they do ever have to respond to an active shooter, they will have no means of differentiating “bad guys with guns” from “good guys with guns.” And in fact, they are trained in active shooter situations to fire at any civilian with a gun immediately, before any other assessment of the situation. They also are entirely unconvinced, as law enforcement professionals, that concealed weapons would make college campuses safer.
Just a little over three years ago, as my own state of North Carolina considered similar legislation, I wrote a column contemplating the idle fantasy that perhaps I would quit my job if guns were permitted in my own state’s classrooms. The backlash I experienced from pro-gun individuals and groups was striking, widespread and bordering on libelous. I remain, despite owning guns and understanding them well, strongly opposed to allowing students, faculty and staff to carry weapons on college campuses.
I will readily concede and agree that the vast, vast, vast majority of concealed-carry permit holders are law-abiding citizens. And because they have gone through the proper processes to obtain permits, they are likely to be more law-abiding than citizens who own guns but have not obtained similar permits.
I also am not really concerned that the average concealed permit holder would ever intentionally threaten me or another member of my campus community. Thousands of permit holders walk around daily, experiencing the routine frustrations and maddening conflicts of contemporary American life without pulling their weapons and making threats. The average concealed-carry permit holder realizes the inappropriateness of such behavior and truly reserves his or her weapon for life-threatening situations. And fortunately, even though life-threatening situations precipitated by assailants are all too common in our culture, the average concealed-carry permit holder never has occasion to pull their weapon in response to a threat. They are armed against possible threats, even though such threats are statistically unlikely to face the average concealed-carry permit holder. All of which I believe is fine, the vast majority of the time.
I also believe that those who advocate for allowing guns on our campuses generally mean well. They truly believe -- mistakenly -- that such weapons will make us safer. I disagree with them on that point, but I do acknowledge that they, like all of us, want our public places to be safe and free of violence. Their philosophy of how to prevent violence is, unfortunately, bolstered primarily by frequently unverifiable anecdotes and inaccurate “scholarship” by gun-rights advocate John Lott.
And while most concealed carry permit holders are responsible and law-abiding, it will only take a fraction of irresponsible owners for additional fatalities to rack up on our campuses. There will be accidental discharges, suicides and gun-backed altercations that otherwise will not exist.
There are two primary arguments for why guns should be allowed onto our campuses, both equally unconvincing.
The Deterrence Argument. Advocates for allowing students and faculty members with appropriate permits to carry guns on college campuses often argue that the presence of concealed weapons will deter acts of violence. Because the weapons are required by law to be kept concealed, the logic goes, would-be perpetrators of violence will think twice before initiating their violent plans, possibly abandoning them entirely.
But while there is a certain Occam’s razor simplicity to this logic, repeated college campus shootings have shown us that attackers often do not expect to survive their rampages. They seem in many cases to anticipate taking their own lives or inflicting as much damage as possible until brought down by law enforcement, which leads to the second argument. Rather than entirely deterring an attack, the presence of concealed weapons seems likely to simply encourage an attacker to strategize further, finding scenarios where concealed weapons holders are likely to be absent or without their weapons.
The Intervention Argument. Advocates of on-campus concealed carry also argue that when a shooting does commence, law-abiding concealed-weapon carriers will be able to intervene and therefore cut short the time and scope of the attacker’s rampage. The biggest hole in this argument is that permit holders of concealed weapons by and large are not trained for how to respond to active-shooter situations. Certainly some concealed-weapons carriers have a military or law-enforcement background wherein they did receive such training, but they are a slim minority. Concealed-carry classes do not train permit holders how to respond to hostile fire or active-shooter situations.
Instead, such classes, which can be completed in a single day in most states, are concerned with educating students about the laws governing their concealed-carry permits, about basic gun safety principles and basic gun use. In other words, the highly difficult active-shooter response training, which military and law-enforcement personnel spend dozens upon dozens of hours practicing in simulated environments, is simply not a part of concealed-permit class curricula. Having a concealed permit tells us nothing of whether or not the permit holder is competent to respond to an active shooter. Indeed, during the recent attack at Umpqua Community College, a military veteran carrying a legally concealed weapon made the prudent decision not to attempt to intervene, citing concern about interfering with the police response or being mistaken for the murderer.
Most concealed-carry permit holders have not experienced combat and been trained how to fire accurately or judiciously in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, the idea that citizen defenders will neutralize the mentally ill assailants who more and more routinely threaten campus safety is a fantasy. It is the boys’ dream of being a hero, but carried often by those who have not been taught how to act with heroism, as our military and law-enforcement personnel have been trained.
My idle fantasy of three years ago, of quitting if guns come to my campus, was just that, idle fantasy. I rely on my job and according to my colleagues and students am good at it. What will I do if concealed carry is permitted on my campus? Unhappily, I will begin carrying a gun, hoping never to have to reveal it, let alone use it, and on who? A student? A colleague? In a last-ditch effort at self-defense because our society has decided that the only last option is for the innocent to take up their own defense? I will worry every day that a fellow gun carrier might behave irresponsibly, creating an accidental discharge in my classroom or overreacting to a situation that is not at all life-threatening.
The new Texas legislation allowing students, faculty and staff to carry concealed weapons on campus will take effect on Aug. 1, 2016, the precise 50th anniversary of Charles Whitman’s rampage.
Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor in the English department at Western Carolina University, where he teaches writing and rhetoric.