How To Get Guns Off Campuses: A Call To Action!

09/28/2016 11:02 am ET | Updated Dec 31, 2016
Courtesy of Flickr Commons
"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…" Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, University of Virginia, (1824)

Contents

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

II. A Call to Action

  1. Overall Goals
  1. How to prepare for the 2017 Texas State Legislative Session
  1. A Primer on Campus Carry
  1. Sample Talking Points
  1. Conclusion

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

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 in Texas. 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 the focal point of this activity, spearheaded by the efforts of a newly-formed group called Gun-Free UT. Following the emergence of Gun-Free 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-Austin signed 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 Gun-Free 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 a veto 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.

II. A Call to Action!

In order to continue being effective, the unprecedented grassroots campaign and protest that has emerged against campus carry in Texas over the last year should consider re-examining how resources are distributed within the movement and devote significant energy towards opening a “new chapter” to complement its current activities: the legislative action chapter. The reason for this partial shift is simple. If we don’t, we’re not going to get very much accomplished.

If you haven’t previously worked on campus carry during a Texas Legislative Session, or haven’t read the the seminal 2008 RAND study evaluating on-the-street shooting accuracy of the NYC Police Department (preview: it’s not so good) - a category that includes most of us - the rest of this albeit quite long article is highly recommended to help prepare us for what will not be an easy fight.

In Texas, here’s the rub. The time to act is now. To change laws in Texas, or block new harmful proposals, the fight has to be taken to the Texas Legislature, which only meets for 140 days every odd calendar year. This means starting in mid-January, 2017, there’s a window until May 29th, 2017 to influence legislative outcomes that won’t appear again until mid-January 2019.

If you already have a chapter against campus carry at your university or community college and want to work on campus carry in the Texas Legislature, you’ll need to get organized. If you don’t have a chapter, but want to get involved, you’ll have to start one and find other student leaders and organizations in your campus community that would be interested in joining you.

Although some of the below applies to Texas specifically, many of the issues involved in bringing handguns into campuses and classrooms do not. Some of the below information might therefore be helpful to readers working against campus carry in other states.

Lawmakers may find the sections on “Statistics on Texas Handgun Licensees” and “Training of Texas Handgun Licensees” helpful to inform their own work since a fair portion of this information was never introduced during deliberations over SB11 or for other campus carry bills introduced during the last four biennial legislative sessions (i.e. 2009-2015).

1. Overall Goals

There are at least two immediate goals for the 2017 Texas State Legislative session:

  1. Advocate against legislation that would make campus carry worse (e.g. permitless carry, the elimination of gun-free zones on campuses).
  1. Advocate in favor of an amendment that would allow public universities and community colleges the choice of whether to opt-out of campus carry.

There is at least one eventual goal:

  1. Create a Texas-wide coalition of universities and community colleges against campus carry. With one voice we will be stronger and will have a greater ability to influence legislation.

Keep in mind, in the service of both immediate and eventual goals, our aim as campus communities is not to get guns out of Texas. It is only to get guns off our campuses, and primarily out of our buildings and classrooms.

2. How to Prepare for the 2017 Texas State Legislative session

In the collective experience of this article’s signatories (found below), some of whom have significant experience working with the Texas Legislature, here is what needs to happen to create a potentially successful effort to pass legislation that would allow public higher education institutions to opt-out of campus carry and to help stop permitless carry, along with other pro-campus-carry-related legislation, from becoming law. These two below objectives do not necessarily need to be pursued in strict sequential order. In fact, you’re likely to be more effective if you pursue these goals in parallel.

A. Learn more about campus carry and engage with the gun-violence prevention community in Texas

  • A primer, with links to relevant articles, is included below. (And below the primer are sample talking points drawn from the primer.) You don’t need to be an expert on campus carry to advocate your agenda effectively, but at least a basic working knowledge of the issues involved is necessary.

B. Organize your group and get started working

  • Develop specific positions with specific tasks and responsibilities within your group. You’ll be much more organized, efficient, effective, and productive this way.
  • One very important task is to track and monitor permitless carry and pro-campus-carry-related bills in the Texas Legislature that are either introduced by House or Senate Republicans or attached as stipulations to Democrat-sponsored bills. If you don’t know what bills are coming up, you’ll be operating in a vacuum.
  • Collaborate with other groups, such as those mentioned above, who share common goals.
  • Find a champion in the Texas Legislature to guide you and be your ally on campus carry.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there’s messaging. Although it’s important to say how you and other members of your campus community think and feel about guns in your classrooms, to defeat campus carry in the legislature - or to present a compelling case against it to other people, groups, or the media - it’s imperative to develop and use several brief, clear, and well-formulated talking points that are used semi-consistently across the four engagement activities found just below.
  • Engage with House and Senate Democrats (if such legislators exist in your district) to discuss how to push opt-out legislation and how to stop permitless carry and other legislation that makes campus carry more dangerous.
  • Organize phone campaigns (and if possible visits) before pro-campus-carry-related bills are filed or receive a hearing to explain why they are bad for public and educational policy.
  • Recruit members of your campus community to submit oral and written testimony on bills at “committee hearings where public testimony is taken,” held periodically at the Capitol.
  • Engage within your campus to find allied groups and outside your campus with broad state associations (e.g. Association of Community Colleges, American Federation of Teachers, Texas Association of College and University Police Administrators) to get them on board with your agenda.

3. A Primer on Campus Carry

The below primer, which can also serve as a general resource, provides an overview of facts, figures, and arguments against campus carry from which talking points could be formulated:

  • History. The framers of The Bill of Rights never intended for the 2nd Amendment (1791) to apply to campuses. When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the University of Virginia, they forbid student from carrying firearms on campus. In fact, the fundamental individual right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment was only established federally in 2008 (DC vs. Heller). The ruling recognized “Like most rights, the 2nd Amendment is not unlimited,” failing to assert this fundamental right in “sensitive places, such as schools and government buildings.” Although Texas is only required to follow statutory minimums established by the U.S. Supreme Court, neither DC vs. Heller nor any other U.S. Supreme Court ruling has ever asserted this fundamental right in public, let alone on campuses and in classrooms.
  • Pro-campus-carry argument. Somewhat ironically, the main public proponents of this legislation, Students for Concealed Carry, don’t argue for campus carry under the 2nd Amendment. Aside from practical reasons for supporting the law, at least currently on their website SCC’s epistemology is based on the idea that “self-defense is a human right.” Some may question, however, whether the exercise of this human right in university classrooms should necessarily includes handguns.
  • Statistics on Texas handgun licensees. Although the vast majority of individuals with a License-to-Carry (LTC) are law-abiding, as a sub-demographic, individuals with LTCs in Texas may not be quite as law-abiding or responsible as one widely-discredited academic has claimed. Background checks for prospective LTCs in Texas, as the Department of Public Safety (DPS) admits, are not always comprehensive since “local agencies do not report all arrests and court decisions to DPS.” This means applicants with disqualifying arrest or conviction records are sometimes eligible to receive LTCs. Furthermore, DPS statistics for actual LTCs do not include most instances of negligence - including when a child or suicidal individual shoots themselves with an unsecured gun owned by a handgun licensee - or accurately reflect rates of criminal recidivism. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Other evidence demonstrating how Texas handgun licensee data has been either omitted or misrepresented in DPS records has been largely overlooked in the debate over campus carry. First, in 2001 the Texas State Legislature authorized DPS to (a) eliminate public arrest records and (b) only report “convictions” of “certain serious offenses” for Texas LTCs. (This information has also been retroactively omitted from 1996-2001 DPS records.) Non-licensed Texans, in contrast, have never been granted these two privileges of omission in crime-related record-keeping. Second, before arrests were stricken from public record, a 2002 study of DPS statistics found arrests for weapons-related offenses (1996-2001), which are considered a reasonable proxy for criminal behavior, were 81% higher for LTCs compared to the general public. Third, besides the current 1996-2016 omission of all arrest records and of convictions that do not fall under “certain serious offenses” for this sub-demographic, DPS’ annual reports of LTC conviction rates in themselves would fail a class project in a basic statistics course. Instead of reporting conviction rates of LTCs within the mere 4 percent of Texans who have them, DPS instead reports these conviction rates within the overall Texas population - one that is currently over 25 million. It’s like saying people who drive yellow sedans are the safest drivers on the road because they only account for a small percentage of overall traffic accidents. And less than “certain serious accidents” by yellow sedans aren’t even counted as accidents in the first place. In total, to say DPS data does not capture the complete picture of overall risk associated with LTC holders as a sub-demographic would be an understatement.
  • Training of Texas handgun licensees. Many experts, including law enforcement and firearms safety trainers, argue an introductory training course - which in Texas runs 4-6 hours - is insufficient for understanding the correct operation of a handgun and acquiring skill-sets that are crucial for performing competently in real-life self-defense scenarios. According to one expert, the simple act of picking up a pistol correctly requires 2,500 repetitions. Such claims are unsurprising given that New York City Police officers, who are required to re-qualify at the shooting range with their service weapons twice-per-year, have an on-the-street accuracy rate of 34% overall, and 43% from a distance of 6 or less feet from their target. The distaste expressed by some experts for a poorly-trained individual with a License-to-Carry to engage threats or perceived threats with a handgun might be summarized by the statement made by one gun-policy writer: “Bystanders don’t get caught in the crossfire of high-velocity knives.” How prepared are Texans after a state-mandated course that requires them to shoot as few as 50 rounds? Although some leave the training as decent shots on a gun range, others leave without properly understanding how to use a handgun. Performance and success are also not particularly well-correlated: Texas rubber-stamped 99.7% of applicants in 2014. Furthermore, interacting with an actual handgun isn’t technically a requirement for receiving an LTC in Texas. Texas recognizes the handgun licenses of 43 states - twenty of which do not require a “live-fire training component” to receive a license. One “recognized” state, Virginia, allows any Virginia resident or non-resident - including a Texan living in Texas - to receive an LTC after watching a quick online video and completing a short multiple choice quiz.
  • Opt-Out. Given the unnecessary risks posed by campus carry, the broad opposition against it in Texas, the prohibition against firearms on campus imposed by the primary author of the 2nd Amendment, and federal recognition by the U.S. Supreme Court that the statutory minimum of the individual right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment does not include schools, we propose an amendment to SB11 that allows public universities the choice to opt-out of campus carry, which all but three of 41 private colleges and universities in Texas have already done.

4. Sample Talking points

Sample talking points to advocate against campus carry, against other harmful legislative proposals, and in favor of opt-out (based on the above primer) are available here.

Although using talking points consistently across activities is essential, obviously the specific points that are used will depend on the bill(s) that are addressed in your messaging, the audience of your messaging, and the medium (e.g. phone call, email, testimony, in-person conversation) being used for your messaging. By joining the larger community for gun-violence prevention, you can receive further help with your messaging along with additional support for moving forward.

5. Conclusion

As you can probably tell, the 2nd Amendment and campus carry can be touchy subjects. Try to be respectful of the viewpoints of other people and groups, such as those of Students for Concealed Carry, even if you don’t agree with them.

Don’t forget to vote this November 8th!

It is our hope that this article can serve as a starting point for a collaborative effort against campus carry in Texas. We hope to see you along the way!

Sincerely,

  • Aron Weinberg (Ph.D Candidate at UT-Austin, member of Gun-Free UT, and gun-violence prevention advocate since 2011)
  • Jorge Canizares Esguerra, Ph.D (Professor at UT-Austin and member of Gun-Free UT)
  • Rebecca Johnston (Ph.D Student at UT-Austin, member of Gun-Free UT, and gun-violence prevention advocate)
  • Alex Colvin (Undergraduate at The University of Houston and Founder of Gun-Free UH)
  • Julie Wauchope (Professor at Austin Community College and Founder of Gun-Free ACC)
  • Ritu Mathur, Ph.D (Assistant Professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio and gun-violence prevention advocate)
  • Patrick Timmons, Ph.D (Lecturer at El Paso Community College and Independent Human Rights Investigator)
  • Ed Scruggs (Board Member of Texas Gun Sense and gun-violence prevention advocate)
  • Physicians Against Gun Violence
  • Kelly Robinson Bernardo, RN (Emergency Room Nurse and former Police Officer)
  • Daniel Hillen (Gun-violence prevention advocate and independent researcher)

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