16 October 2015
Dear President Fenves:
We represent a group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the University of Texas at Austin’s History Department who are deeply concerned by the implementation next August of “campus carry” law S. B. 11. We oppose its implementation on a number of grounds, not least of which is that it is our belief that it will endanger the lives of the students and employees—as M.A. and Ph.D. candidates we often represent both groups—that the university is bound to protect.
We believe that this is not a fight about second amendment rights, but about the right of our staff and students to work, teach, and learn, without fear. In the Supreme Court case DC v. Heller (2008), which has been widely interpreted as protecting an individual’s right to possess a firearms, including handguns, for lawful self-defense, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, noted that the “Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding … laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings…” We recognize that the Texas Legislature disagrees, and allows concealed weapons inside the Capitol. But it is our belief that the majority of the campus community disproportionately affected by this law would agree with Scalia; Chancellor William H. McRaven expressed those wishes clearly earlier this year, when he spoke to the legislature opposing concealed campus carry, in UT’s best interests.
We believe that allowing weapons of any kind in the classroom will cause a chilling effect upon our students’ ability to grapple un-self-consciously with the complexities of history, and hamstring our ability to teach them. As Teaching Assistants, the ‘front line’ of the history department, we engage with UT’s student body in ways that blur the line between teachers and peers. We direct discussions in sections and seminars, and meet with students one-on-one; to guide our students in their intellectual pursuits, we must also navigate their disappointments. Introducing concealed firearms into classrooms and academic buildings, settings of extraordinarily emotional educational interactions, will make us less safe, despite the best intentions of those hoping to carry them.
The subjects we teach are contentious. For example, will we continue to lead discussions on why some scholars have linked the open carrying of weapons to the rolling back of black rights during Jim Crow, in a class where we know that some students have concealed weapons? When we teach classes on institutional racism, prejudice, and violence towards non-white bodies in recent US and global history, will our students—especially those who identify as the victims of such forms of discrimination—feel safe discussing such matters in our classrooms when they know that classmates might be armed? It is awful, sad, and dehumanizing, to anticipate the fear that we and our students might then bring to those interactions. Some of us are ready to commit to gun-free office hours, to guarantee our safety, and our students’ freedom of discussion.
We also believe that this will be a much larger and more dangerous challenge than the UT system has been led to believe. Perhaps a “smaller” number of students will be eligible concealed carry permit holders, as we have been told. But there are 5,500 licensed carriers in the immediate vicinity of UT. If the law’s intention is to make us safer by encouraging the spread of concealed carry onto campus, to guard against school shooting situations and others, then the thought of 5,500 licensed carriers descending on UT in case of an emergency must give us pause. History supports these suspicions. It might be claimed by S. B. 11 supporters that on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 16 people on and off UT’s campus, that he was stopped from killing more by armed civilians, who returned fire. To that, we must respond that those civilians were shooting with hunting rifles, and guided by police officers who, at that point, lacked SWAT training. And it should also be noted that Ruth Heide Claire James, formerly Claire Wilson, told lawmakers in February that civilian gunfire prevented first responders from getting to her after she had been shot in the abdomen by Whitman: she then lost her unborn child. Individuals watching the shooting on TV in the old San Jacinto Café south of campus also saw a man carrying a deer rifle rush in, buy a six-pack of beer, and rush back out. A proliferation of handguns in the hands of individuals untrained in mass shooting scenarios would make it harder for UTPD and Austin’s police—whose chief testified against S.B. 11 during the legislative session—to do the job that they have been trained to do; that Austin specifically learned from in 1966.
On a day to day basis, will those of us in the University community who represent and ally with ethnic minorities be safe from split second decisions to shoot made by men and women whose training involves a four hour course? As the #BlackLivesMatter movement illustrated last year, even highly trained police officers whose jobs involve protecting society on a daily basis fall victim to racial prejudices or mistakes in split second decisions. How are we to feel about concealed permit holders? At what point does the believed need for self-defense at a University become an attack on rights to freedom of expression and movement, without fear of causing someone to feel threatened?
Finally, we are troubled by the effect that S. B. 11 will have upon the University of Texas’s national and international reputation as a place to work and study, and our department’s ability to attract graduate students. We are some of the best budding historians in our respective fields, and we came to Texas to from all over the nation—Maine, Washington, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin—and even further beyond—Australia, Colombia, Canada, China, Greece, Nigeria, Peru, the UK, and more—to study, safely, at UT’s top-ranked History Department. Some of us would have thought twice before coming; others cannot in good conscience encourage other students to come before they think hard about the activist law S. B. 11 and the climate of fear it means to promote on campus.
We therefore ask that you, President Fenves, Chancellor William H. McRaven, and the members of the Campus Carry Working Group, oppose the implementation of S. B. 11; that you make clear to the state how much it will cost to increase campus security—money better spent improving educational opportunities for Texas’s students; and that you represent our views—as students, staff, and in our particular case, experts on history—as believing that this law will endanger the wider UT community.
We thank you for courageously supporting us in our endeavor to educate Texas’s students on the ideal of a civil society, in which open debate can neither be open, nor a debate, when enforced by thousands of handguns.
Our sincere regards,
María José Afanador-Llach
Natalie R. Cincotta
Ronald W. Davis II
Bradley J. Dixon
Kristie P. Flannery
Alejandra C. Garza
Nicolás Alejandro González Quintero
Peter E. Hamilton
Maria Esther Hammack
Franz D. Hensel Riveros
Sean P. Killen
Valerie Ann Martinez
Juan Carlos De Orellana Sánchez
Christopher S. Rose
Samantha Rose Rubino
Clay Silver Katsky
Christina M. Villarreal
Henry A. Wiencek