Monday, October 10, 2016

Guns, Kids and School, Part 9
“Campus Carry” and (Un)Intended Consequences?                     

 Scene 1:  Lecture hall in a public university in Texas
            White student enters, takes his seat and opens his backpack to take out his laptop.
When he reaches into the side pocket, he has to push a handgun aside to find the charger for his computer.
            The white girl on his left sees the gun and breathes a sigh of relief:  “I feel so much safer now…”
The African American girl on his right catches a glimpse of the gun and quietly scoots her chair a few inches farther away.  She doesn’t say much in class and tries not to be noticed.

Scene 2:   Crowded parking lot on the campus of a public university in Texas
African American student eases his car in to a narrow slot as students compete for scarce places in the rush to get to class.  As he lifts his backpack out of the car, a broken zipper leaves open to view his iPad and his handgun.
“911—black guy with gun.  I can’t tell what he’s going to do with it. This parking lot is crowded! He’s armed – he’s walking this way! Please – hurry!”

Welcome to “Campus Carry,” brought to you by the misguided Texas legislature and the gun lobby they report to.   White guy with gun a guardian of the peace? A patriot? A “real Texan”? Black kid with gun a danger to others? Black guy with a gun a "perceived threat"?

The law permitting guns on all public universities and colleges in Texas took effect on the anniversary of the saddest day in the history of higher education in Texas:  August 1, 2016, the 50th anniversary of the “Tower Shooting,” the day an army veteran stepped out on the tower of the University of Texas at Austin and shot at anyone walking within his line of sight, killing 13 and wounding 30 others.  The cynical timing of the campus carry law was noted at UT and around the nation as another example of Texas craziness.

But this law is beyond crazy.  “Campus carry” is timed to intersect with two racially charged developments:  the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of affirmation action in university admissions in the Fisher case and the alarming increase in claims of the “stand your ground” defense used to justify violence – including shooting to kill – if the shooter perceives his or her victim to be a threat.

Let’s think about this convergence:  Just when the US Supreme Court has ruled definitively in support of increased racial and cultural diversity in ourpublic universities and their admissions policiesour nation is plagued with shootings of unarmed African American boys and men.  And as we saw in the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Treyvon Martin, his “I felt threatened, he seemed dangerous” defense succeeded in acquitting him of murder.  That Zimmerman defied instructions to stay in his vehicle and not follow or confront the boy in the hoodie – and thus choose to stay out of harm’s way – was not enough to override his claim of feeling endangered.

Campus carry + greater racial and ethnic  student diversity + “perceived threat” = Peril.  And a special peril for non-white students. 

Which leads me to a larger question:  Is this just about satisfying the gun industry and its lobbyists? Is this an aggressive action to get out ahead of any attempts at gun control?  Or is “campus carry” an instrument of social control, an assault on the learning spaces we have created for our youth?

We have already seen the resignation of a highly celebrated dean from the UT-Austin school of architecture – a dean who said he would never have considered an offer from another university if it had not been for campus carry: “I felt that I was going to be responsible for managing a law I didn’t believe in.”  Professors report that recruiting faculty to a campus with guns is becoming more difficult. And I imagine that African American and Latino parents may be re-thinking their child’s aspirations to attend the state’s flagship universities – despite reputations for high academic quality and relatively affordable tuition – if their college years will always be clouded with the possibility that someone – a campus police officer, a fellow student, a visitor walking through campus – might “perceive” that the cell phone, the paperback, the bag of Skittles their child is carrying is a gun.  

Such perceptions are heightened by fear – fear that permission to have a gun on campus means that that person you see walking toward you or getting out of his car or heatedly debating a point in class or in a late night dorm room might be dangerous.  Maybe you’d better shoot first just to be sure.

If the professors and deans and people who staff the college offices leave to find jobs in gun-free work places, if the parents of minority students re-think taking advantage of Fisher and encourage their children to apply where guns won’t be an issue – has the gun lobby had a double victory?   Acceptance of guns on campus made commonplace, and critics who could potentially organize to oppose and reverse this legislation gone? 

Is “campus carry” meant not just to permit some kids to bring guns to our campuses and to normalize a culture of weapons in public spaces, but to create a subtle transformation in who feels at home in our public universities, who feels free to speak, and who feels safe?  Will “campus carry” cause the exit of those who question and, in the process, create a comfortable venue for those who – out of real or imagined fears or a profit motive or political expediency – won’t be satisfied until guns are everywhere in America?

What could possibly be the intent behind the votes for “campus carry”?  What are the intended outcomes? And which of the consequences might have been unintended?  How does “campus carry” compute with the growing cultural and ethnic diversity in our colleges?  Much has been made of the perils of mixing of guns and alcohol, guns and partying, guns and sexual violence, guns and the still-forming “executive functions” of the young adult brain, guns and depression, guns and social conflicts when guns go to college.

There is also the peril of silencing lively discussion, intellectual inquiry, free debate, and challenging ideas – not just because someone in the room might have a gun, but because “campus carry” has kept some of the most lively minds, inquiring intellects, provocative questioners from teaching at – or enrolling in – a college where the same legislature that cut the academic budgets increased the presence of guns.

To share your thoughts, click on the word “comments” below.

1 comment:

CathyH said...

Thanks for this piece that thoughtfully links the important contribution of campus climate to our capacity to cultivate the benefits of a diverse student body. The Supreme Court's decision - a celebrated and important one - is necessary but insufficient. As you describe, attending to students' sense of belonging is critical. A campus that doesn't feel safe for everyone to live and learn and work in is a campus not doing its job.