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.
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.