Starting next month, anyone age 21 or older with a license to carry a concealed handgun will be allowed to do so at Texas’s public universities. The “campus carry” law in Texas, passed in June 2015, has generated more national attention than similar laws in other states. That may be because university communities in Texas, especially at the flagship University of Texas (UT) at Austin, have protested loudly. The dildos in some of the protests may also have played a role.
Opposition has come from many sectors—administrators, faculty, students, staff, and campus police. In a 17 February letter to the UT Austin community, university president Gregory Fenves wrote that he does “not believe handguns belong on a university campus.” The decision to adopt the recommendations on how to implement the new law, he wrote, has been the “greatest challenge” of his presidency to date.
Nine states have laws allowing concealed handguns on postsecondary campuses: Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. On 3 May, the day after campus carry became the law in Tennessee, Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed a bill that would have allowed students to carry concealed handguns at public institutions of higher education in his state.
Campus-carry laws vary from state to state, and their implementation varies from institution to institution. At UT Austin, for example, guns will be banned from several parts of campus: residential halls; administrative offices; laboratories containing strong magnets, pressurized gases, or other hazardous equipment; some areas where animal research is conducted; the courtroom of the campus’s legal clinic; child care facilities; and intercollegiate athletic venues. “It doesn’t make sense to carry in places that have pyrophorics or near a machine that could attract metal. And a primate could grab a gun,” explains Bob Harkins, the university’s associate vice president for safety and security, who is in charge of implementing campus carry.
Faculty can ban guns from their offices, but not from their classrooms. The details of UT Austin’s rules were still being ironed out as Physics Today went to press. But the wiggle room was limited. As Fenves wrote in his letter, “Under the law, I cannot adopt a policy that has the general effect of excluding licensed concealed handguns from campus.”
At Texas A&M University, handguns will be allowed in residential halls. They will be prohibited in research areas “where the presence of high hazard materials or operations creates a significant risk of catastrophic harm due to negligent discharge,” according to the university. In Oregon, all campus buildings are exempted, and in Wisconsin, universities can opt to ban guns from buildings. In Utah, where campus carry went into effect in 2002, concealed weapons are allowed anywhere on campus except for residential halls.
Supporters of campus carry say it makes people safer. They point to situations like the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student armed with two semiautomatic pistols killed 32 people. Someone with a gun, the argument goes, could fire at the shooter and thereby reduce casualties. Just such a scenario, though, has campus police worried that law enforcement officials wouldn’t be able to distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. “If there is an active shooter, the only person we want to see with a weapon is the shooter, not the bystanders,” says Lewis Eakins, director of public safety at Idaho State University (ISU) in Pocatello.
Banning guns does nothing to “stop the crazies,” says Eugene Mishchenko, a physicist at the University of Utah, but campus-carry laws give “some rights to probably a more responsible slice of society.” After joining the Utah faculty in 2004, he completed the one-day course to obtain a license and became a competitive shooter and sometime shooting instructor.
Opponents of campus carry worry about discharges occurring by accident, in the heat of an argument, or if guns get mixed with alcohol or mental instability. Not long after Idaho introduced campus carry in 2014, a chemistry professor at ISU accidentally shot himself in the foot. And in May, a UT Austin police officer landed in the hospital after unintentionally firing his weapon. “It happens with people actually trained to handle guns, and I wouldn’t be shocked if accidents happen because of campus carry,” says UT Austin physicist Raphael Flauger. He adds, “Why will students be able to carry guns in backpacks? It’s dangerous, and if the point is to defend yourself in the case of a shooter, it won’t be productive.”
“It’s a concern that more people have guns. What about the students who storm out of a test? What if they have a gun on top of their temper?” says UT Austin physicist Sonia Paban. “I personally don’t plan to do anything differently, but I will do it with a different spirit.”
Paban plans to ban guns from her office. According to regulations, she will be required to meet students somewhere else. But, she says, “I don’t think I have to go out of my way to meet someone with a gun. That would be foolish.”
Another concern is how campus carry may affect intellectual discourse. “Most faculty will think twice before offering courses on controversial topics like race, gender, inequality, religion, slavery, empire, colonialism, etc.,” UT Austin history professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra wrote in a letter that was widely circulated among faculty last October.
Such controversies may not be a common problem in the hard sciences. “We are dealing with technical issues that are right or wrong. Discussions in physics are never too heated,” says Utah’s Mishchenko. Still, some topics can be controversial—evolution, cosmology, and the possible health effects of low-dose radiation are examples. Pearl Sandick, a physicist at the University of Utah, says the possible presence of guns is “absolutely” on her mind when she prepares lessons or public talks. “When you talk about early universe cosmology, or anything that might touch a nerve, you have to give a little extra thought to how students might respond and how those conversations could play out.”
Other concerns include the temptation for faculty to assign higher grades to appease students, and difficulties that universities could face in recruiting faculty and students. Media studies professor Laura Stein, a member of the roughly 2000-strong grassroots group Gun-Free UT, says it’s unlikely that professors will dole out all As. “But what about the volatile student who has been aggressive and is pushing for a higher grade? That could lead to grade inflation.”
Several UT Austin faculty members say the prospect of guns on campus has already contributed to potential hires going elsewhere. And at least two professors cite campus carry as a key reason for leaving—economist Daniel Hamermesh moved up his retirement, and the dean of architecture, Fritz Steiner, moved to the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. People see the campus-carry law as “backwards, uncivilized,” says Paban. “They will think twice before coming here.”
Campus carry puts psychological pressure on professors, says Stein. “It is against a broader ethos of values that the university is meant to cultivate—a community of discourse, intellectual exploration, asking the hard questions.”
In states that already have campus-carry laws in place, people have largely gotten used to it. At Utah, for example, “it has all blown over. It feels absolutely normal. It’s a nonissue,” according to a faculty member who asked not to be named but who initially opposed guns on campus. Steven Shropshire, a physicist at ISU, says that since his state adopted campus carry there has been “no change in the atmosphere that I have felt. The biggest impact is irritation—it’s a hassle to get signage up” in places where guns are prohibited, such as at the Idaho Accelerator Center.
In any case, notes UT Austin’s Harkins, “our personal feelings are moot. [The state government] made the law, and we are figuring out how to implement it.” He notes that Texas has had concealed carry since 1995. “If you go to HEB [grocery store] people are carrying guns and you don’t know it.
“My major concern,” says Harkins, “is getting through the frustration of people on both sides, getting us over that hump, so we can get back to focusing on educating students.”
Many faculty and students at UT Austin are resigned to campus carry, but not everyone is giving up. Malcolm Greenstein is part of a team of Austin lawyers who are working pro bono with individual professors and Gun-Free UT to mount a legal challenge. “We have not yet come to a decision about how we will proceed, but I am fairly certain there will be a lawsuit,” he says. With a nod to the challenge that failed in Utah, he adds, “new paths needed to be charted.”
UT Austin physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg has been among the most outspoken critics of campus carry in Texas. He says he will ban guns from his classroom. It’s unclear if such a move could be legally challenged, but campus administrators are concerned that the state might retaliate by tightening the financial reins on the university.
And the dildos? They were the brainchild of UT Austin alumnus Jessica Jin. “A lot of the debate is ideological,” she says. “The spirit of higher education is the opposite of gun culture. It’s sad that people have come to accept campus carry.” When she heard about campus carry, her first thought was “what dildos” the people were who wanted guns on campus. That thought led her to check the legality of carrying a dildo on campus. It’s considered obscene and is a misdemeanor in Texas, she says.
Last fall Jin created a Facebook event to organize a protest that more than 10 000 people have signed on to. Now she is working out how to distribute thousands of silicone dildos donated by manufacturers. The plan is for students and others to dangle the sex toys from their backpacks come 24 August, the first day of classes. “We are fighting absurdity with absurdity. If you are squirming at a dildo, you most certainly should squirm at a gun,” she says.