Fighting Campus Carry

Matthew Boedy, a professor who played an active role in the successful fight against legislation to allow guns on campuses in Georgia, shares the lessons he learned.

November 16, 2016
 
iStock/Michelle Junior

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.

Bio

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

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