Firearms and Campuses

Academic Freedom, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Legislation

by Kenneth Sawdon

The right to carry firearms publicly is a major concern for many people in the United States, with strong arguments on both sides. But, the discussion generally focuses upon Second Amendment rights of the gun owner and not on the reactions and mentality shifts of the communities with open/concealed carry laws.

I feel it is important to preface this post by saying that I do not mean to disparage all legal firearm owners. Most are trained, respectful, and worthy of trust. However, guns can be stolen from their owners, carried by people that are disrespectful or lack appropriate training, or simply involved in an accident.

Further, I am not uncomfortable around guns. My father came from a small rural town where hunting was commonplace, and his hobby and knowledge was passed down to me. I have gone out hunting and shooting deer (with proper training and licenses in the proper zone). That said, I only respect a person holding a weapon if they know how to properly respect that weapon and those around them. I do become uncomfortable when people I do not know may be openly or concealed carry around me. Unless I know someone is properly trained and respects their firearms there is a chance that they may be a danger to myself and people around me. I do believe there is a time and place for firearms

Houston Open Carry Suggestions for Professors -Be careful discussing sensitive topics -Drop certain topics from your curriculum -Not "go there" if you sense anger -Limit student access off hours -Go to appointment-only office hours -Only meet "that student" in controlled circumstancesBack the the point at hand: Texas has passed a bill that will permit (ie: force campuses to allow) firearm owners to carry handguns on institutions of higher education. Because of this, the University of Houston warned faculty to restrict their discussions to avoid firearm attacks. Slides were revealed that suggests professors, “may want to”:

*Photos taken by @JeffintheBowtie

These recommendations are ridiculous and anti-academic. I’ll highlight two reasons.

Firstly, it is against one of the fundamental points of educational institutions, especially post-secondary institutions. Post-secondary institutions are still held up as places where intellectual freedom is lauded: ideas and research are supposed to be controversial, debated, and even wrong. Education advances through dialectics and experimentation–and sometimes strong emotions should come about from learning. Strong, antagonistic, emotions can be a driving force to learn more, to do better, and to prove your opponents wrong. Additionally, limiting time with students is simply restricting one of the most valuable resources students are paying for: their own professors. This reaction is quite literally asking educators and students to stifle and separate themselves because violent reactions may be possible.

Secondly, this line of argument against sensitive topics suggests administrators have no respect for professors’ ability to read their own students as well as students’ ability to listen to contrary views without resulting in violence. There is always the threat of a mentally unstable or sociopathic person strangling, stabbing, beating with a ball-peen hammer, or even using an illegal firearm against the faculty or others on campus. To assume that legal handgun owners are more prone to sociopathic or unstable actions is insulting and silly.

I will make one exception to the fear that students may be trigger happy: drug and alcohol use on campuses is notorious and ongoing. I do not feel I need to expand on any worries from mixing drugs/alcohol with guns, no matter the demographic. Accidents, or deliberate awfulness, will increase. Campuses should continue to raise awareness of the problems of intoxication, and make new efforts to bring firearms into that conversation.

Texas’ carry law does not come into place until August 1st. The University did recently hold the ‘Super Tuesday’ GOP debate, however. Until March 28th I had wondered whether there would be rights restrictions for events such as these, which are arguably much more divisive than regular class discussions. On March 28th the Secret Service answered this for me, by disagreeing with ~45,000 signatures from people who believed presidential and primary debates should allow open carry for attendees. Logically, I understand that these are higher-than-normal risk events, which may be a tempting target for a mentally unstable person. Cynically, I wonder why politicians are more valuable than educators in the eyes of the law. Frankly, it seems to me as though some politicians are fine with anyone and everyone carrying a firearm as long as they are not around to be targeted.

Like many state, and all federal, governments, Texas does have a Speech or Debate Clause, Sec. 21 “WORDS SPOKEN IN DEBATE.” in Texas. This means they have additional freedom of speech rights in the duty of their work, within limitations. Also, federal buildings are an exception to the right to open or concealed carry in Texas and around the country.

Students and faculty in the state are already speaking out against the new law, but mass protest has only a limited amount of value to lawmakers. Texas school administrators have been put in a difficult spot. It’s the school administrators that have to deal with the reality that the law has already been passed, and they will still need to deal with state politicians on other matters. It would be silly to think that any academic higher-ups would try to defy the new “guns are great for campuses” law. But, the response to laws like these matter, and telling faculty to avoid controversial subjects defies the obligation that educational institutions have to intellectual freedom. There is not even a credible threat of violence in classrooms–just the vague awareness that it could increase.

Promoting the carrying of firearms on campuses goes on the theory that more people carrying guns will ensure a quicker ending/firefight than waiting for campus security or police. Whether that is true or not will be found out in the coming years. No matter the outcome, the faculty and students on campuses that allow open/concealed carry will externally or internally worry about what they can and cannot say or do safely.

Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. He loves wading through policy and legislation, especially intellectual property issues and professional association rhetoric. You can find and connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.

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