A Brief History of Guns on Campuses and Campus Carry in Texas

This series was originally published in Huffington Post as an article titled  How To Get Guns Off Campuses: A Call To Action!

We will be publishing this series over the next few days. This is Part 2.

In 2008, galvanized by the Virginia Tech Massacre the year before, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) developed a model bill to spread so-called “campus carry” across the country, asserting the right and need for communities of higher learning throughout America to arm themselves under the 2nd Amendment. In retrospect, at least, it was not a particularly surprising move. Although in the 1920’s and 30’s, during which the 2nd Amendment was still conventionally viewed in America as fundamentally a “collective” not “individual” right, the NRA helped write and lobby for the first federal firearm regulation laws, after a historic coup within the organization in 1977 transformed a group focused on hunting and marksmanship into a “2nd Amendment activism group” with one of the most wealthy and influential lobbying arms in the country, the NRA had worked to wheedle away many of the “tyrannical” gun laws and regulations its previous membership had supported. In 2008, guns in colleges and universities became just another item on a state-by-state and federal “guns everywhere” agenda that included allowing guns into bars, opposing modest gun-safety laws that have been shown to save lives, and opposing mandatory background checks for all gun purchases that would make it more difficult for criminals to purchase firearms.

Ironically, the NRA leadership’s post-1977 mission to almost entirely eliminate any and all laws and restrictions on guns is not one either Thomas Jefferson or James Madison – the latter who was largely responsible for creating the 2nd Amendment (1791) – would have likely endorsed. (Furthermore, most Americans, including gun-owners, support modest gun-regulation measures opposed by the NRA’s leadership such as mandatory background checks.) Firearm regulations were an “an integral and ubiquitous element” of early American life, and among these was one both of these Founding Fathers imposed at the University of Virginia in 1824: “No student shall, within the precincts of the University, keep or use any spiritous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind…” In fact, although the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, along with gun laws and regulations, have varied considerably across states throughout the course of America’s history, the fundamental right to private gun ownership was only established federally under the 2nd Amendment in 2008 (DC vs. Heller) – over 200 years after the 2nd Amendment’s ratification – in a highly controversial 5-4 ruling. Although a major victory for pro-gun advocates, in his majority decision ruling, arch-conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his strict “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, wrote that although this fundamental right existed under the 2nd Amendment, it did not exist everywhere without any restrictions: “Like most rights, the 2nd Amendment is not unlimited.” Consistent with these Founding Fathers’ own prohibition at the University of Virginia, Scalia further noted: “…nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on…laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings…”

In any event, the NRA’s efforts paid off. Since 2008, bolstered by the public effort of the pro-campus carry group “Students for Concealed Carry”, NRA-backed legislation has passed state-mandated campus carry legislation in 7 out of the eight states where it is currently permitted. One of its most recent victories was inTexas. During the most recent Texas biennial legislative session, campus carry (Senate Bill 11) was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in June 2015, providing campus presidents with limited discretion under the law to establish “reasonable rules” that did not “generally prohibit” license holders from carrying on campus. The law took effect on August 1st, 2016, allowing students with as little as 4 hours of handgun license training – in a course that passed 99.7% of applicants in 2014 – to carry them concealed (but not openly) in most public university buildings and classrooms. (SB11 applies to community colleges beginning August 1st, 2017.) According to the Chancellor of The University of Texas System, William McRaven, a retired Four-Star Admiral and former Navy SEAL, in comments made before the law took effect or recommendations for its implementation were provided, concealed weapons likely make our public university campuses less safe and have the potential to imperil free speech in the classroom.

An interesting thing happened in the early fall of 2015, about four months after SB11 passed in June during the 2015 legislative session, and about eight months after Chancellor McRaven shared his initial concerns about campus carry in a letter to the Texas Legislature in January 2015: a strong grassroots campaign against the new law emerged at Texas universities. While it consisted of several movements around the state, including at The University of Houston and The University of Texas at San Antonio, The University of Texas at Austin became thefocal point of this activity, spearheaded by the efforts of a newly-formed group called Gun-Free UT. Following the emergence of GunFree UT, a UT-Austin alumna conceived of a clever and inventive “planned protest” at UT-Austin where students would bring sex toys into classrooms – technically a Class A Misdemeanor in Texas – once the new law took effect. In what might be called a perfect storm of grassroots activism, both of these movements at UT-Austin garnered international media attention and served as a tremendous boon to the formerly small university campaign in Texas against campus carry, turning Gun-Free UT and UT-Austin into the epicenter of a national debate over guns on campuses. Under the auspices of Gun-Free UT, a flurry of meetings, protests, events, and even an out-of-session hearing at the Capitol ensued during the 2015-16 academic year, during which 1,700 professors, The Student Government, The Graduate Student Assembly, The Faculty Council, and 43 academic departments, centers, and schools at UT-Austinsigned petitions, resolutions, or statements against campus carry during deliberations for the law’s implementation. A Nobel Laureate on the teaching faculty also stated he would bar guns from his classroom regardless of the legal consequences, and in the spring of 2016, Students Against Campus Carry was organized at UT-Austin to further mobilize against the new law. Subsequently, after UT-Austin’s reluctant recommendation to permit handguns in classrooms was finalized in June 2016, a lawsuit was filed in Texas Federal Court by three UT-Austin professors. Although a request for an initial injunction to keep guns out of their classrooms was rejected, a trial will begin in the upcoming months. Most recently, a joint event was held by GunFree UT and “Campus (Dildo) Carry” – the latter of which was gloriously covered in a segment airing on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah – during the first day of classes at UT-Austin on August 24th, featuring thousands of distributed sex toys, powerful speeches, and chants from the hundreds of protesters who attended. Perhaps the loudest and most resonant one – “OPT-OUT!!!…OPT-OUT!!!…OPT OUT!!!” – referred to a proposed amendment to SB11 that would allow public universities and community colleges in Texas the choice of whether to adopt campus carry. The chants were a beautiful thing to hear and participate in for those of us who have worked – some for several years – in the campaign against guns-on-campuses in Texas.

One thing, however, that may not have occurred to some in the crowd is how much time, organization, and effort something like “opting-out” would actually take to succeed in a Republican-controlled House and Senate whose number one legislative priority (out of 260) in 2017 is passing a so-called “Permitless Carry” bill, which would eliminate the need for any training or license to carry a handgun in Texas, including in the buildings and classrooms of its higher education institutions. Unless you’re a fan of Georgia’s “guns everywhere” law – where the far from gun-shy Governor, nonetheless, rejected campus carry this past May in aveto note that cited Thomas Jefferson’s prohibition and the DC vs Heller decision – things go further downhill from there. The 2017 Texas Republican Platform additionally calls for the elimination of “all gun-free zones”, which on campuses currently include sensitive areas such as scientific laboratories. Although the passing of such legislation may sound implausible to some, identical or similar gun-friendly measures have passed in a number of other states. Indeed, for years many Texans thought campus carry would never be approved by the Texas Legislature. Well, eventually it was during the 2015 Legislative Session, along with open-carry of handguns.

In other words, unless we in Texas get organized, motivated, and move forward together, “opt-out” for public universities and community colleges is a pipe-dream, and guns on campuses could get a whole lot worse.