On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman opened fire from the UT tower and killed 14 people on our campus, ushering in the modern era of mass shootings. Fifty years later, Aug. 1, 2016, in an ironic twist of history, it became legal to carry concealed handguns in classrooms and many other educational spaces on the campus. During the debate leading up to the implementation of this law known as “campus carry,” we were even subjected to the specter of a gun enthusiast with an assault rifle standing on the roof of a UT parking garage. That image had eerie overtones of Whitman selecting his victims from the tower. We were being reminded that in addition to concealed handguns, open display of long guns — including loaded assault rifles — is legal on our campus.
How did we get here, and what has been the impact of campus carry? Arguments were made that gun-free zones encourage mass shootings and therefore such zones on college campuses should be eliminated in the name of safety. The available evidence does not support this position. For a readable account, see “Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings” by Louis Klarevas. Other arguments were based on interpretations of the Second Amendment to the Constitution that individuals had the right to bear arms almost anywhere and everywhere, with very few exclusions. Historical analyses do not support this interpretation. For a fascinating summary of the discussions and intentions of the authors of the Constitution and the Second Amendment, see “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us,” by Joseph Ellis.
The fierce resistance to limitations on gun ownership and to limitations on places where guns are allowed has, in part, its roots in a profound and sometimes paranoid distrust of the government. Unfortunately, there is reason to be wary of statements from government officials, because we have repeatedly been deceived about major events that have had tragic consequences. We only have to remember the lies about nuclear fallout and nuclear testing and the beginnings of the Vietnam War, to mention a couple of painful examples. We need to demand honesty in government so that we can build trust and work toward a sensible gun policy in the USA.
With regard to campus carry, the conversation has gone quiet. We don’t know who is carrying guns or what the risks are. It is an accident waiting to happen. When it does happen, who will be responsible and who will compensate the victims? We have a system of registration and compulsory insurance for cars because we recognize the risks that they pose. It is ridiculous that we do not have the same kind of system for guns. Among other things, it would be of tremendous help for law enforcement in keeping guns off the black market and out of the hands of dangerous actors. We don’t have such a system because of a distrust of government that is shared by a significant number of our citizens. Think about that the next time you vote, and demand scrupulous honesty in our public officials so that the crucial process of building public trust can be advanced.
We do know that campus carry has had a negative effect on the reputation of public universities in Texas and on retention and recruitment of outstanding faculty, staff and students. A list of known failures of retention and recruitment since 2015, along with some of the reasons, is posted on the Daily Texan website here. More detailed statements regarding some cases are available on the Gun-Free UT website. Among other things, we know that a Nobel Laureate declined a faculty position, a dean resigned, a candidate for a deanship withdrew, seven faculty members resigned and six distinguished invited lecturers cancelled engagements or declined invitations.
There is much more that could be said about the emotional impact of campus carry, but I am out of space. I can’t help feeling that campus carry is a profound insult to the academic community. Nobody wanted it — not the chancellor, the president, the faculty, the staff or the students. We do need ways to promote personal safety. The Faculty Council resolved on Jan. 25, 2016 that “The University should mount an initiative to study gun violence, and non-lethal means of enhancing personal safety, both on-campus and off-campus.” Although there have been belated actions to improve personal safety following the tragic death of Haruka Weiser, the University has not adequately risen to the challenge posed by the Faculty Council. Do we have to wait for the next tragedy?
Snodderly is a professor of neuroscience and a founding member of Gun-Free UT.