Our college campuses are plagued with numerous problems, but the shortage of guns is not one of them. No one walks around our campus thinking: “I wish the students and faculty had more guns.” One of the characteristics that make our University grounds so pleasant is that violence, and the threat of violence, are almost nonexistent. Universities offer a free and open space where people can explore, interrogate and debate. They are designed to be places of scholarly interaction, free from all weapons. They should remain that way.
Texas is one of numerous states where interest groups and some legislators are pushing to repeal university limits on firearms. Why are they doing this? What is the motivation?
The call for firearms on campus is, unfortunately, not about universities at all. Gun advocates believe they have a legitimate claim about Second Amendment rights to bear arms in public, and they are motivated to strike against all restrictions on that asserted right. Universities stand out because they occupy large spaces in our cities and towns, and they generally restrict gun possession on their territory. In addition, universities are familiar targets for advocates of individual freedom who distrust large institutions, elites and higher education. The restrictions on gun possession look to these critics like they are part of a broader conspiracy against the rights of ordinary people.
The only conspiracy, however, is against the very idea of education in our society. From its inception, Americans have valued the classroom as much as the gun. The first settlers opened schools, and wherever Americans have gone – within North America and abroad – they have created new schools at all levels, including universities. Americans have seen schools as civilizing institutions, designed to teach citizens how to think and contribute productively to the broader needs of society. Despite our democracy, schools have existed as heavily regulated spaces designed to preserve the interests and needs of students. That has meant strict state requirements for mandatory attendance in middle school and high school, tight rules for attire and behavior at all levels and various rules for admission, testing and graduation. Citizens are not free to act on campus grounds as they do in other public spaces. Educational spaces have always been protected and regulated in special ways, within reason, to preserve a safe and effective learning environment.
That history is essential for the current debate about guns. Despite claims about gun freedom in society at large, the college campus is different. In a space where young men and women are often away from parental control for the first time, and where they are exposed to frequently unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations, it is downright horrifying to imagine them carrying weapons at the same time. Imagine the scenes of undergraduate drunkenness on Saturday nights with guns added to the equation. Imagine the stress of end-of-semester exams with emotionally unstable students fingering their guns. Only bad things can happen in these all-too-familiar circumstances.
Similarly, it is scary for me to think of my faculty colleagues, who are dedicated researchers and teachers, carrying weapons on campus for self-protection. I often tell friends that I find it sufficiently dangerous we allow so many faculty to drive! (Have you seen them on the road? Watch out!) To put it bluntly, many faculty live in the world of ideas, and their practical capabilities for managing dangerous weapons are limited. Those who work with their minds probably should not fire powerful projectiles from their hands, unless they are trained rigorously and supervised continuously, as in the military.
These observations bring me back to my initial questions about the current conversation surrounding guns on college campuses. We need to turn this debate from guns to education. The question is not whether anyone has a right to carry a gun, but how to maintain an effective and open learning space for citizens who need advanced education more than ever before. Just as we regulate behavior in special ways to preserve academic integrity and freedom on campus, we must have the right to regulate firearms in special ways as well. The rules on campus must indeed be different from the rules elsewhere, otherwise the campus becomes just like everywhere else. Schools are citadels of learning, and their integrity depends on some control over their environment.
We have witnessed college shootings in recent weeks and years, but more guns are only likely to create more fear and danger. I lecture to more than 300 undergraduates many mornings at 8 a.m. I count on the fact that they are not armed, and they count on the same from me. We are part of a special space for inquiry, removed from the violence and even the individual freedom of ordinary society. My students are prohibited from texting, emailing or talking on the phone during my lectures. They should always be prohibited from carrying firearms in lecture as well. We can all learn more that way.
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.