guns

Florida appeals court rejects right of public universities to regulate guns on campus

Florida appeals court rules that, in most cases, public colleges and universities can't regulate weapons on campus.

College presidents urge Obama to act on gun violence, pledge support

Hundreds of college presidents sign open letters written by their colleagues, vowing to help Obama in curbing violence.

How colleges can help K-12 schools deal with violence (opinion)

Across the nation, high school students are now selecting the colleges and universities where they will spend the next formative chapter of their lives. They are making their choices against a backdrop of unprecedented public attention to gun violence, thanks to a bold and galvanizing uprising that they themselves have led. While they are high school students today, they will be college students next. Higher education has to be ready.

To understand the students soon coming to our campuses, it helps to acknowledge some essential facts that have shaped their coming of age. The 18-year-old students graduating high school this spring have known schools as sites of violence their entire lives. They were born the year after the Columbine, Colo., massacre. They were seven years old when a shooter killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Most weren’t even teenagers when a 20-year-old shooter killed 26 people at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. And while mass shootings receive wide attention, other forms of ongoing “silent violence” shape the lives of thousands of students in their schools, neighborhoods or homes.

How can higher education support students and help advance the movement they have started to prevent gun violence in schools?

First, as new students arrive on our campuses, we must recognize that many come to college without the sense of a classroom as a place of safety, something we know is essential for teachers to teach and students to learn. Some students have experienced gun trauma directly, while virtually all have been affected through news reports and social media. They seek -- and deserve -- explicit institutional commitments to their safety. Those commitments might take the form of emergency preparedness drills, active and repeated safety training for faculty and staff members, and detailed planning around emergency protocols in the classroom and residence halls. It involves counseling services and other forms of trauma-informed mental health support.

Second, we must support our faculty in making space in the classroom to acknowledge incidents of violence. Even when the topic is far outside the faculty member’s discipline or comfort zone, even if the approach may be tentative or awkward, students feel supported when professors acknowledge traumatic events. In reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, research by Therese A. Huston of Seattle University and Michele di Pietro of Carnegie Mellon University has found that students believe it is always best to do something rather than nothing, “regardless of whether the instructor’s response required relatively little effort, such as asking for one minute of silence … or a great deal of effort and preparation, such as incorporating the event into the lesson plan or topics for the course.” In my experience as a professor and a president, students are grateful when you acknowledge events that are hard for them to process.

Finally, as college and university leaders, and as campus communities, we cannot be silent about school violence. Students are leading a bold, essential movement against gun violence, and we must stand with them. We must amplify their voices and join them in demanding change. Many college and university admission deans set this tone pre-emptively in the wake of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this spring. They made explicit public pledges not to penalize prospective students -- even if the students’ high schools chose to -- for their activism.

Gun violence is not a partisan issue. It is a human rights issue. Every educator should care about the prevention of gun violence -- indeed, violence in any form -- that cuts short the futures of young people, many as their educations have barely begun.

Kathleen McCartney is the president of Smith College.

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The growing movement to divest from gun manufacturers (opinion)

TIAA-CREF, the largest provider of retirement funds for employees of academic institutions, often emphasizes its good works to appeal to its socially conscious customers. The investment firm’s Facebook page and other materials are filled with accolades such as “Best Overall Large Fund Company” and “named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies.” TIAA has long promoted its Social Choice investment option, which I chose for my own retirement savings. Customers can invest in green bonds devoted to “environmentally beneficial projects or activities” and in emissions reduction. TIAA also touts its investments in affordable housing in its Social Impact Investing Portfolio.

But despite TIAA’s evident interest in providing socially conscious investment products, the firm has not responded to their many customers now urging them to divest from gun and ammunition manufacturers. Customers first pressured TIAA to divest in 2012, the year of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where a lone gunman killed 20 small children and six adults with an AR-15. At that time, University of Miami English professor John Funchion circulated a petition requesting that TIAA divest from the manufacturers of semiautomatics, and it was signed by 2,112 TIAA-CREF clients. Funchion wrote, “Imagine my shock and dismay … when I realized that my own retirement funds were being invested in Smith & Wesson and in Sturm, Ruger, two companies that manufacture versions of the same AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used to take so many lives in Newtown -- and used, also, in the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. We are calling on TIAA-CREF to ‘do right’ in this post-Newtown moment.”

Many in academe are taking part in the growing movement demanding legislation to prevent mass shootings such as the most recent in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students, a geography teacher, the school’s athletic director and a coach were shot dead. Academic activists have been inspired by the eloquent young survivors, some of whom are just months away from enrolling in college.

Academic activists have also spoken out against gun manufacturers’ lobbyists, particularly the National Rifle Association, which has drawn stark battle lines between its members and educators. In a 2017 video available on YouTube and broadcast on NRA-TV, spokeswoman Dana Loesch uses a tone of militancy and disgust to denounce an unspecified “they” who use schools to indoctrinate young people. Loesch then encourages the NRA’s five million gun-owning members to raise “the clenched fist of truth” as an answer to this outrage.

Since the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, activists and concerned citizens have pressured companies offering NRA discounts to cut their ties with the organization blocking meaningful gun reform. Many have done so. But despite recent victories for activists, semiautomatic weapons, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines remain easily attainable in many states.

Faculty members, who interact regularly with 18- to 22-year-olds in unlocked classrooms and offices and who encourage vigorous discussions, are finding themselves on the front line of the battle over gun rights. Mass shooters have repeatedly targeted educational settings, and in a number of recent instances, teachers and students have been gunned down side by side. While elementary and secondary school teachers are upset that their job description now includes being “ripped apart by a spray of bullets,” in the words of one K-12 art history teacher, college faculty also worry that their students, under intense deadline and grade pressure and often suffering from depression or other mental health disorders, might bring a deadly weapon to class.

The sheer number of shootings taking place on campuses or resulting in mass casualties has a numbing effect. Many of us working in academe downplay the alarming patterns and continue to be accessible to our students despite our fears. At the same time, we can’t forget the student who in 2015 brought three guns to his community college classroom in rural Oregon, where he murdered his 67-year-old English instructor along with eight of his classmates before turning the gun on himself.

We also remember the graduate engineering student who killed first his wife and then his dissertation adviser in 2016 while the professor was working in his office at the University of California, Los Angeles. Another professor on the gunman’s kill list escaped death only by being away from campus at the time of the shooting. I find the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech particularly disturbing not only because so many died -- 32 faculty and students were shot and killed in a residence hall and in classrooms -- but also because I teach at a STEM-focused institution and take seriously my institution’s mission to provide “individual attention and support” to students. That supportive relationship with students -- evident in Rose-Hulman’s open office doors, small classes and approachable faculty -- has become difficult to maintain in an era of active-shooter drills and campus lockdowns.

Remarkably, these horrific events in educational settings have led gun-rights advocates to argue that students and teachers should be armed. Following heavy lobbying by the NRA, legislatures in 10 states have passed laws to allow concealed weapons on public university campuses. The indiscriminate mass and targeted killings will apparently be allowed to continue, but with “good guys” wielding weapons as well. Gun-rights advocates have created the perfect conditions for Wild West-style gunfights in college classrooms, yet with more deadly, organ-lacerating and bone-splintering weapons thrown into the mix.

Given the potentially deadly working conditions at colleges and universities, it is unsurprising that many academics are demanding that their retirement funds be “gun free.” Tim Watson, another English professor at Miami, who co-administers a members-only group on Facebook called “Tell TIAA-CREF: Stop Investing in Assault Weapons,” recently explained that he bombarded TIAA’s social media accounts with messages urging divestment following Sandy Hook, but to no avail. After the February school shooting in Florida, Watson wrote to the divestment group’s 1,444 members to inform us that TIAA is still invested in semiautomatic weapons manufacturers. Watson again posted a comment on TIAA’s Facebook page urging divestment and reported that it was swiftly deleted.

Soon after reading Watson’s post-Parkland update, I offered to write a new petition urging TIAA to divest. The 2018 version includes a list of the most prominent mass shootings since Sandy Hook, including the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where 49 died in 2016; the 58 shot dead on the Las Vegas strip in 2017; and the 17 killed at the high school in Parkland this year. I mentioned as well TIAA’s mission and distinct customer base, which includes educators who wish our work and investment money to have a positive social impact and who do not want our retirement portfolio swelling with gun manufacturers’ blood-soaked profits. So far, over 4,000 people have signed the new petition, and many have written comments including warnings to TIAA that they will transfer all their holdings to a gun-free fund elsewhere if nothing is done.

Divestment was highly effective during the movement against South Africa’s apartheid in the 1970s and ’80s. That iconic struggle’s success has inspired new activist groups to seek political change by divesting from ethically tainted institutions, industries and products -- even though in some cases the gesture is symbolic rather than financially significant. Divestment is one of the three strategies of the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which calls on academic institutions and organizations and their members to divest from Israeli companies as long as the occupation of Palestinian land continues. Divestment also has been an effective strategy to combat climate change, pushing academic institutions to end their reliance on oil, gas and coal company profits. In 2016, after students conducted sit-ins at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, UMass became the first major public university to divest. And in 2017, Harvard agreed to “pause” their direct investments in polluting energy sources.

Divestment is not enough, of course. Many people working in academe want gun-free campuses, affordable medical and mental health care for their students, and adequate public funding for higher education to relieve financial pressures such as ballooning student loan debt. While we continue to work toward those larger, elusive goals, we should  at the very least be able to control where our own retirement money is going.

Divesting from gun manufacturers would send a strong message. Yet TIAA is ignoring customers’ clear demand -- expressed again and again since at least 2012 -- to end investment in products or services causing suffering and death. The companies producing the weapons of choice of mass shooters surely fit into that category. I welcome other customers of TIAA-CREF to sign and share the petition linked above, and I urge once again, along with the other signatories, TIAA’s complete divestment from gun manufacturers.

Rebecca Dyer is an English professor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Her research examines how works of fiction (both texts and films) intervene in political controversies.

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After shooting, Georgia Tech's decision to withhold Tasers questioned

After fatal shooting of a student, experts question why Georgia Tech doesn’t arm its officers with stun guns.

Campus carry is about the right for individual self-defense, not preventing mass shootings (essay)

Campus carry is in the news again. Here in Arkansas, the governor just signed a bill (HB 1249) that will allow permit holders who obtain additional training to carry guns on campuses. Georgia’s governor recently signed a campus carry bill even though he vetoed one last year. In Kansas, a professor has resigned in part because of his concern about a campus carry bill.

The debate on this subject, which has always been highly emotional, seems to have drifted away from a focus on whether guns in the classroom stifle debate. It now hinges on the role concealed carriers might play in stopping a mass shooting or in hindering the police response to such an event.

Jacob Dorman, the history professor leaving Kansas, wrote in his letter of resignation, "Campus shootings have become all too frequent, and arming students has done nothing to quell active-shooter situations, because students do not have the training to effectively combat shooters and rightly fear becoming identified as a suspect themselves."

During the legislative tug-of-war over HB 1249 in Arkansas, one of the issues in play was the content of the additional training that would be imposed on people who wished to carry on campuses. One amendment would have required that that training should include active-shooter training, active-shooter simulation scenarios, trauma care and defensive tactics, among other things. The premise here seems to be that only people who are trained to the point where they are virtually junior members of the local SWAT team should be allowed to carry on campuses, because it is only they who would have the skills to deal with the complexities of an active-shooter situation.

Proponents of campus carry also view the potential for intervention in active-shooter situations as a central argument for campus carry. The author of the Arkansas campus carry bill wrote it with the specific intent of reducing the risk of mass shootings. So it’s not just the anti-gunners who see mass shootings as central to the argument.

But I don’t think concealed carriers are likely to make effective interventions in mass shootings. Nor do I think the presence of concealed weapons is likely to hinder the response to a mass shootings. Further, I think the focus on mass shootings distracts us from the best arguments for campus carry, which should be primarily about the individual right to self-defense and self-determination -- not about the ability or inability of concealed carriers to protect others from events like mass shootings.

It’s instructive to look at a real-life example. During the 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon -- where campus carry is legal -- several people who were present legally carried guns. None of them used their guns, and all seem to have done what everyone else did at the time: they cleared out in a hurry.

Why didn’t those armed students intervene? First, it’s terrifying to get shot at, and, as John Keegan’s The Face of Battle tells us, most people, when faced with a deadly threat and an avenue of escape, choose to flee rather than to fight. It’s people who are trapped and cannot flee who stand their ground and fight. Had the gunman trapped any of the concealed carriers in a room or corner, things might have turned out differently.

We should also keep in mind the types of weapons that concealed carriers bring with them. People who are less familiar with guns may assume that concealed carriers are armed in much the same way that the police are armed. They are not.

To be sure, some concealed carriers do lug around full-size pistols and extra ammunition. But those guns are heavy, bulky and uncomfortable to conceal. In practice, most concealed carriers favor easily concealed five-shot revolvers and pocket-sized autoloaders. While those types of guns are well suited to close-range self-defense, they are hard to shoot accurately beyond about 10 yards.

If you found yourself facing an active shooter armed with a rifle or even a full-size pistol in a large space like a library or student union, that little revolver with its two-inch barrel is going to feel pretty inadequate. It’s totally unreasonable to expect someone to take on a heavily armed shooter in such a scenario.

By contrast, cops usually have full-size pistols with four- to five-inch barrels that usually hold 15 or more rounds, and they carry lots of extra ammunition. They also routinely wear body armor and have rifles in their cars. Not only are they better trained to deal with these types of issues, but they are also much better equipped to do so.

As for the likelihood of concealed carriers complicating the response to a mass shooting, it’s significant that we have to talk about this as a hypothetical. Could it happen? Sure. There are thought to be over 14 million concealed-carry permits in the United States, a growing number of states allow permitless carry (legal since 1791 in Vermont) and campus carry has been legal in Utah for over a decade. Can anyone point to an example of a mass shooting on a campus or off one that was made worse because of the presence of a legally carried concealed weapon? I can’t.

A Question of Individual Choice

If concealed carry can’t be expected to prevent mass shootings or to increase the general level of safety on campuses, why support it?

The question itself is fundamentally illiberal. The only valid objection to legally carried guns on campus would be if the presence of those guns posed a significant danger to people other than those who carry them.

Given that the expansion of concealed-carry rights over the last 20 years has coincided with (which is not the same as caused) a declining murder rate and a reduced incidence of gun accidents, it’s hard to make the case that concealed carry poses a significant threat to others. So if legally permitted faculty members or students want to carry a gun to school because they think, rightly or wrongly, that it makes them safer, it’s hard to see why anyone else has a legitimate interest in preventing them from doing so.

Opponents of gun rights often point to studies that purport to show that owning a gun is more likely to make one the victim of gun violence (a misleading term that conflates homicides and suicides) than it is to protect one from violence. Even if those studies were correct on a broad level, that would not justify preventing an individual from making their own choices about whether to own or carry a gun, provided that those choices don’t put others at risk.

Finally, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where having a gun on a campus might actually be quite useful to the individual with the gun. When an irate student or colleague shows up at your office door armed and bent on mayhem -- as happened at Delta State and the University of California, Los Angeles -- having a gun handy offers better odds than not having one.

Walking through the dark parking lot when you leave the library or the lab late at night? If you think you are safer with a gun than without, why should anyone second-guess your decision?

If you happen to be locked down in a classroom during a mass shooting, wouldn’t you rather be able to shoot back if the shooter comes through the door? If you would rather resort to throwing coffee cups or iPads, as some campus police might advise, that’s valid choice and I would not try to dissuade you. But is there a compelling reason to impose that preference on others?

Campus carry is not going to end mass shootings, but it’s disingenuous to use that as an argument against guns on campus. Do we really want concealed carriers to act as auxiliary cops or vigilantes? The fact that thus far none have done so during a mass shooting is a testament to their good judgment and thus constitutes an argument for, not against, the individual right to armed self-defense.

Erik Gilbert is a professor of history at Arkansas State University.

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On left, a Glock 22, a police service pistol; on right, a Ruger LCP, popular with concealed carriers.
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Court upholds University of Michigan's gun ban

Against a tide of pro-gun rulings and legislation, a state appeals court ruled 2 to 1 that the University of Michigan -- a public institution -- has the right to ban guns on campus.

Lack of Comma May Derail Georgia Gun Bill

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal may be poised to sign new legislation to permit guns on college campuses this week, but the absence of a comma in a provision excluding some campus locations from legal firearms may have legal implications, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Deal vetoed the campus carry bill last year after lawmakers chose not to honor his request that the measure make exceptions for certain areas of campus. However, the House and Senate recently compromised and approved a bill that would permit guns on campus but bar them in child care facilities, certain faculty and administrative offices, and spaces used to hold disciplinary discussions.

Although the new version of the gun measure is more in line with what Deal requested about a year ago, a Democratic aide identified a grammatical error that may stand in the way of the governor’s signature.

One of the exemptions is written to say that the bill does “not apply to faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted.”

The aide, Stefan Turkheimer, wrote on GeorgiaPol.com that the absence of a comma after the word “offices” could change the application of the legislation. The bill is meant to exclude “faculty, staff or administrative offices” as well as “rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,” but as Turkheimer said, “without that comma, it’s just two clauses both modifying ‘offices or rooms.’”

He goes on: “This reading becomes even more persuasive when you consider that both of these area exceptions, if they were meant to be separate, could, and perhaps should, have been put into different clauses. … So unless faculty offices are also rooms where 'disciplinary hearings are conducted,' they would not be exempted. Let’s just ignore whether these rooms are off-limits only when they are being used for disciplinary hearings or whether they are off-limits from carrying at all times because sometimes they host disciplinary meetings (makes less sense, but that’s what the bill says).”

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A professor describes lessons learned fighting campus carry in Georgia (essay)

Public universities in Texas are a few months into the experience of campus carry, a state law that allows students with licenses to bring guns to colleges. One fear of critics has been realized there: an accidental misfiring at Tarleton State University in September.

Yet in Georgia, where I teach, all of our campuses thankfully remain gun-free. While Texas legislators passed and its governor happily signed a law allowing concealed weapons on campus, my governor, Nathan Deal, vetoed a bill that would have done the same here in the Peach State. Faculty members in the rest of the country who will face similar bills as their legislatures meet again can learn important lessons from both states.

I was one of many faculty members who publicly fought the Georgia bill. We did that through op-eds, rallies and letters to elected officials. A few celebrities even joined our cause. As a professor of rhetoric and one of those who took an active role in stopping campus carry, I feel I am in a distinct position to offer lessons to others. They include:

The Higher Education Exception. I have already mentioned one reason Georgia does not have campus carry: the veto of Nathan Deal, a second-term Republican. His veto message offers faculty members some counterclaims to the ones gun supporters usually make.

Deal centered his veto on the oft-cited 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote. This ruling is a favorite of the National Rifle Association and other similar groups who back campus carry bills. Deal noted that Scalia, in fact, supported bans on weapons in “sensitive places” like schools. Deal argued that the history of higher education in America and in our state supports this label.

A common refrain from campus carry advocates is the “contradiction” in laws about guns in states like Georgia: on one side of the street, at the strip mall, a person can carry a gun, but across the street, at the university, one can’t. But that isn’t, in fact, a contradiction. It is on purpose. Many of our other laws distinguish colleges and universities from other public institutions, even other educational ones. For example, FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, means that parents lose rights over their child’s educational records when they turn 18, the age when many enter higher education.

A good rhetorical move by faculty members in both Texas and Georgia was to point to the strong definitions of higher education that had proceeded from faculty senates. Some of the language of those statements showed up in Governor Deal’s veto. He wrote that “from the early days of our nation and state, colleges have been treated as sanctuaries of learning.” If anything, this clear and precise vision of education should serve faculty well as they address campus carry.

Past Is Prologue. Another reason for a victory in Georgia was particular to our state context, but it could still be applicable to similar states. In his veto message, Deal pointed out that, in 2014, Georgia passed a law allowing concealed weapons (with a permit) in many public places -- including bars and churches that authorize them, government buildings that don’t have security screenings, and K-12 schools. It was dubbed the “guns everywhere” law. Everywhere except colleges and universities. The very same Legislature that passed what the National Rifle Association called “the most comprehensive pro-gun bill in state history” in 2014 did not seem to think campus carry important then. Yet not two years later, it seemed to think otherwise.

Deal -- who signed the 2014 bill -- didn’t let that hypocrisy pass. Activists in other states should take note: use the Legislature’s actions as precedent. Why do they want campus carry now? Why didn’t they pursue it previously?

Faculty and Students United. Another reason Georgia has no guns on campus is the large amount of organized faculty activism. This also happened in Texas, and faculty members there should be applauded for their efforts, especially those who recently sued over the allowance of guns on the campus. Every state is different, and perhaps Texas’ rich history of gun ownership was too big an obstacle. There are many reasons why sound arguments don’t persuade.

In any case, to win against the pro-gun activists, faculty members must join ranks with students. At a rally at our capitol where I spoke at against campus carry, students also spoke. Students created Facebook groups and held their own rallies. It was not merely the “liberal professors” who were against guns but the very group that the legislators wanted to keep safe. Students told those lawmakers thanks but no thanks. They counteracted the students whom the gun groups say are prompting their push for campus carry. And if it turns into a numbers game, the biggest group has some rhetorical power.

The most important lesson to be learned may be how to handle fear. Both sides have used it: fear of crime or fear of students. I understand both. But if we learned anything from the other side in this debate, fear-based arguments, while somewhat effective and energizing at times, usually put off the people whom we most need for support.

If we are intent on convincing legislators, especially those who support gun ownership, a better argument from faculty is the distinctiveness of higher education. This was Scalia’s argument. And if we intend on convincing those students (or faculty) who support gun ownership, how can we reach them through fear of them? Our commonality is a better line of argument.

We must also not let the arguments we make sabotage our credibility to make them. One example that seemed to undermine faculty members was the publicizing of a University of Houston faculty presentation about campus carry that seemed to generalize students as volatile. The university quickly distanced itself from the presentation, saying it was a draft and wouldn’t make into the final policy. But if we are painted as fearing students, the other side calls out for more protection. In other words, it leads quickly into “this is why faculty need a gun.” Fear divides us quickly.

Faculty members also at times have linked guns to academic freedom. This argument hasn’t worked because the public doesn’t fear loss of academic freedom, mainly because it only seems to be an individual benefit to professors. In other words, faculty members haven’t done a good job arguing to the public both nationally and locally how academic freedom and its sister, tenure, are part of the public good, not an individual benefit.

Campus Carry Lite. A compromise that Georgia debated at the same time allowed Tasers and stun guns on campuses. Mainly because gun-rights supporters saw it as a compromise, Governor Deal signed it into law. If your legislators are interested in compromise, that might be a good route. It has its own drawbacks, however, as many critics have noted -- one of which is that many states don’t require permits or training for such devices. Some states have made stun guns illegal. Finally, stun guns are fatal at times, making them as dangerous as firearms.

Celebrity Support. Georgia residents, such as the Indigo Girls, former R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe and actor and University of Georgia alumnus Tituss Burgess, came out against campus carry. This type of media attention seemed more respectable to the general public than the “cocks not Glocks” protest in Texas.

Finally, it is important for faculty to organize well before the first bill is filed. I recommend working with a group like Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014 to advocate for gun control and against gun violence, which has been through the fight in Texas and Georgia. It encourages faculty to join its Educators for Gun Sense. Full disclosure: I have donated to and worked with this group.

Good organization can aid on the back end, too. While Texas had a year to think through its enactment, if our bill in Georgia had passed, we would have had just a few weeks. If a bill is to pass in your state, try to get some delay in its implementation. But if not, a well-organized faculty doesn’t have to wait for its administration to come up with a plan.

Campus carry bills are not going away. With a new governor in two years, Georgia will face this again. Perhaps even sooner. Faculty members across the nation must strategize now about the upcoming legislative session.

Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville.

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The key arguments for concealed carry on campuses don't hold up (essay)

Guns in Higher Ed

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.

The Texas legislation has not taken full effect yet, but in terms of employment, UT Austin is already beginning to feel its effects. A prominent dean cited the legislation as a factor in his recent decision to leave the university, while another candidate for a deanship withdrew from a job search, citing the legislation as his singular reason for doing so. Recently, a University of Houston presentation slide regarding the new Texas campus-carry legislation went viral, primarily because it made explicit the chilling effect that many educators anticipate guns will have on classroom discussions and university life.

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.

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