As More Campuses Allow Concealed Weapons, Faculty Push Back

A growing number of colleges allow students to carry concealed weapons.

Conservatives routinely mock college students for their insistence on “safe spaces.” But “war zone” might be a more appropriate description of the atmosphere as a growing number of schools allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons onto campus.  At Texas Tech University, the warnings of explosive violence on campus became a horrifying reality recently after a freshman shot a campus police officer in the head. The shooting came just days after Texas Governor Greg Abbott reassured the public that “concealed carry poses no danger on Texas campuses.” 

The new normal

Like Texas, Kansas recently enacted a law allowing for guns virtually everywhere on campuses that are part of the state’s public college system. At the University of Kansas, the prospect of gun violence has faculty on edge. The perversely named Personal and Family Protection Act, passed by Kansas legislators in 2013 and enacted this year, allows students to keep guns in their dorms and carry them to class. Another recent law removed the requirement that anyone carrying a concealed handgun in the state obtain a permit.

Professor Kevin Willmott started off the new semester by wearing a bulletproof vest to class in an effort to make the new gun policy more visible.  

“They don’t want [the policy] to be visible because if it was visible, if everybody was walking around with a bulletproof vest on, people would say, Oh my god, is this a warzone? What’s going on here? And yes, it is a warzone. No one’s started shooting yet. Yet."

Willmott was following the lead of an adjunct instructor at San Antonio College, who showed up in class wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest to highlight the very real risks teachers and students now face on campuses where guns are allowed. In recent years, an aggressive pro-gun movement has succeeded in forcing a growing number of schools to allow guns. In addition to Texas and Kansas, institutions in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Tennessee and Wisconsin have all been forced to allow firearms on campus. In Georgia, six professors recently sued the state for allowing concealed weapons on University of Georgia colleges.

Armed with questions

For students at the University of Kansas, campus life is now complicated by the fact that at least some of their peers will be packing heat, in the classroom and in the dorms. Resident assistant Miranda Ganter, a sophomore at KU, says she’s “nervous about knocking on students’ doors when they suspect drinking is going on,” since the students (including the drunk ones) may be armed. While the new policy requires guns to have the safety on and that there cannot be a round in the chamber, there’s no way to check that anyone is following these rules, and there’s no way to know who has a gun in the first place.

Other students worry that guns in the classroom will inhibit free speech in the classroom. Kansas Coalition for a Gun Free Campus Co-president Meagen Youngdahl warns that, “The mere presence of firearms or perceived presence of firearms creates an environment of fear and intimidation that makes it impossible to have real open discourse.”  

Faculty and administrators at KU haven’t been shy in voicing their opposition to the new law. A 2015 survey of the Kansas Board of Regents showed that 70% of faculty and staff at seven Kansas colleges believed that guns on campus should be banned entirely. Aside from the obvious fears about safety, faculty also worry that having guns on campus may make recruiting new hires more difficult, or that staff may leave campus out of fear. They point to colleagues on other conceal-carry campuses, like the University of Texas’ Daniel S. Hamermesh, who quit after two decades because the prospect of a disgruntled student bringing a gun into the classroom and “start shooting.” University of Texas is the site of the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

The cost of safety

Since Kansas’ Personal and Family Protection Act passed in 2013, colleges have tried to come up with new policies to protect students and staff. KU drew the line at permitting concealed guns at sporting events, or in any locations that already have security measures in place, including metal detectors and armed police officers. In other words, guns won’t be allowed at places where there are already guns. Presumably, one way for Kansas colleges to prohibit concealed weapons in other campus  locations would be to install similar security measures—but at what cost?

Installing a metal detector and employing two staff to oversee it would cost $100,000 annually—for just one entrance to a campus building. That’s a significant expense at a time when public universities like KU are grappling with deep cuts in state funding. But let’s assume colleges did have the money to spend to install metal detectors and guards all over campus.

“I just think that would completely alter the learning environment,” says KU junior Chris Rice. He imagined 1,000 of his peers lined up to file through a metal detector en route to a lecture class, or a student in the lecture hall brandishing a weapon. “I don’t see either as a really good option,” Rice told the Lawrence Journal-World.

The full impact the Personal and Family Protection Act will have on campuses is still unknown. But the assertion by the law’s supporters that it will make campuses safer is a hard sell. One recent study found that violent crime increased in states with concealed carry laws. Another study points to the unique vulnerability of campus populations to gun violence, warning that that allowing  easy access to guns on campus may allow suicidal individuals easier access to firearms. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college-aged individuals.

Ultimately, no special background information or insight is required to see that this policy is guaranteed to accomplish the opposite of its ostensible goal. Its proponents seem to think making people more afraid will make them safer, when in fact creating a permanent atmosphere of fear and suspicion is only going to ensure no one ever feels safe anywhere. And it makes sense that the more scared people get, the more likely it is they will arm themselves, making an already tense situation worse and a tragedy all but inevitable.

So is it really so outrageous that professors like Charles K. Smith or Kevin Willmott would show up to their classes wearing protective armor? The decision to dress for a warzone was intended as a very visible form of protest. But as guns make their way into every corner of campus life, wearing protective armor won’t seem like just a melodramatic way of highlighting the dangers of having guns on campus. It will be common sense.

Matthew James Seidel is a teacher and writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas. His writing on literature has appeared on The Millions. He reviews books on history, philosophy and science on his blog, Working Title Books. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewJSeidel.
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