It’s caused an uproar among students, it’s spawned forceful condemnations from the Faculty Council, and it’s been covered nonstop by local media. And, despite the incendiary rhetoric, it almost certainly won’t matter. Lost in the furor over the proposed campus carry law is the fact that the bill itself is probably inconsequential.
In light of the fierce divide over gun control in the U.S., it makes sense that ideologues on the left and the right are both trying to rile people up over Senate Bill 11. But in trying to frame the bill to fit a political agenda, neither side accurately characterizes its potential effects.
Contra some of the bellicose conservative talking points emanating from the statehouse, campus carry is not an issue of individual liberty. Even strong social libertarians have no problem restricting certain freedoms in the name of public safety. There’s no major push, for instance, to prevent carriers of lethal and infectious diseases from being quarantined. And even the most strident Second Amendment activist might take issue with someone dragging a howitzer down Speedway. It's not a great push in favor of the rule of law, either, because on-campus crime isn’t quite the epidemic the bill’s proponents claim it is. At UT Austin, for instance, there were six rapes, two weapon-based assaults, and no homicides on campus in 2014, according to UTPD’s annual crime report. Even if other schools around the state report higher numbers, the numbers suggest that relatively secure campuses should be able to opt out of the potential law's implementation.
But the liberal critics treating the law as a major threat to campus safety are equally misguided. Given UT’s open campus and the state’s lax concealed-carry laws, it’s possible for just about any ruffian or malcontent to bring a gun onto campus anyway. Handgun bans in public schools and movie theaters have never deterred the type of malicious or mentally unstable individuals who commit atrocities. That doesn’t necessarily mean that such bans should never exist—it just means that a more gun-friendly policy won’t bring more criminals to campus.
The only thing the firestorm of opposition against the bill is doing, then, is deflecting attention from the probable outcome of its passage—absolutely nothing. Allowing guns on campus would only substantially change the campus climate if there is a significant number of students and faculty members who would bring a weapon to campus if given the legal opportunity. In all likelihood, even that number would overestimate the law’s impact, given that most gun owners have no murderous intentions and know how to safely carry their weapon. So, barring a critical mass of unstable and irresponsible gun owners who would wreak havoc if only they had a legal channel through which to do so, campus carry will not turn UT into the set of a Clint Eastwood film.
The best argument against the campus carry bill is that it simply isn’t pragmatic, regardless of one’s stance on the Second Amendment. Retraining police forces and safety officials to deal with the law’s constraints will cost a lot of money, as will updating campus infrastructures with fixtures like safes and lockers for gun storage. The Houston Chronicle reports that the UT system could wind up spending $39 million on such changes.
Campus carry might also make it tougher for university police departments to apprehend potential criminals. With guns banned on campus, anyone who carries one publicly can be stopped by authorities, regardless of whether or not they intend any harm. Under the new law, however, if a shady character is walking around campus with a weapon, there wouldn’t be any grounds on which to question them. Loose gun restrictions might make sense in places with security forces too ineffective to keep people safe, but in fairly secure areas like college
campuses, efforts to complicate police work will typically wind up counterproductive over the long run.
Only one issue matters when it comes to campus carry: whether or not allowing concealed weapons on campus will make universities safer by a strong enough degree to account for the law’s deleterious ripple effects. And even if the bill’s advocates are right about its impact on campus safety, it would take a lot of “good guy with a gun” scenarios for that to happen.
Still, this entire controversy centers on whether or not the infinitesimally small chance of a vigilante stopping a potential rapist or murderer, either in self-defense or on someone else’s behalf, is greater than the infinitesimally small chance of a shooting taking place due to the malice or recklessness of someone who wouldn’t already bring a gun to school in the first place. That’s it. The conflation of this particular bill with the broader debate around gun control both lends it a gravitas that far outweighs its effects and marginalizes discussion over its actual drawbacks.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Conn. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.