FOR DISCUSSION ONLY
By Edwin Dorn
Senate Bill 11, the new Texas law that allows holders of concealed handgun licenses to bring their weapons into university buildings, is a very bad idea. What could our legislators have been thinking when they voted for it?
They must have fantasized that someone who has spent a Sunday afternoon in a concealed handgun class will be able to out-shoot a homicidal maniac who walks into a classroom, guns blazing. I can think of at least one thing that would be worse than having a crazed shooter in my classroom: getting caught in crossfire between a crazed shooter and a pistol-packing neophyte.
My worry is based on an honest assessment of my own abilities. Having spent much of my youth on a farm, I learned to shoot a gun before I learned to ride a bicycle. While in the Army, I became proficient with a .45 pistol, and I’ve fired many rounds from .38 revolvers and 9mm semi-automatics. Those experiences have led me to speculate that I might be able to neutralize a shooter if he were standing motionless less than 30 feet from me and if there were no distractions – no students running for cover and screaming in panic, for example. If those ideal conditions did not apply, the likelihood of collateral damage would be high. Also, when the cops showed up, the likelihood of their shooting me would be high, even if I shouted “Hey, I’m the good guy!”
The law allows university presidents to create a limited number of gun-free zones on their campuses. UT-Austin President Greg Fenves has appointed a committee, chaired by law school professor Steven Goode, to recommend where those areas should be. Here’s my guess: guns will be prohibited in mental health clinics and in laboratories where volatile chemicals are used. However, guns are not likely to be excluded from ordinary classrooms where students are discussing, say, whether confederate leader Jefferson Davis should have been hanged for treason.
Still, the law is the law. Rather than defy it, I have decided to use it as a case study in how (and how not) to make public policy. At the beginning of every semester, I will invite my students to discuss the following announcement:
NOTICE REGARDING THE
CARRYING OF CONCEALED HANDGUNS
- Persons who are licensed to carry concealed handguns cannot be prohibited from carrying them in this classroom.
- The carrying of handguns by private citizens increases the likelihood of handgun violence.
- Handguns are phallic symbols. They enable men to compensate for feelings of emasculation. Other phallic displays include the wearing of a codpiece and the grabbing of one’s crotch.
- Those who feel the need to carry a handgun have the option of choosing a less dangerous alternative, such as wearing a codpiece or holding their crotch.
That announcement will provide several teaching points. The first statement demonstrates how to present a controversial issue in a factual, non-judgmental fashion. It also encourages us to ask, “What problem does this law solve?” The second and third statements are assertions that are subject to empirical verification. The fourth recommends alternative ways in which individuals can respond to this particular public policy.
Focusing on the second statement, suppose that empirical evidence supports the claim that there is a positive correlation between the presence of handguns and the frequency of handgun violence. Can we nevertheless imagine circumstances under which a moral, rational person would support a law that allows more people to carry guns in more public places? If we cannot, then how should we assess the legislators who exposed us to greater danger?
Edwin Dorn, PhD, is a former Army officer and a former under secretary of defense. He teaches public policy at UT-Austin.