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Q & A

Texas Professor Warns That Guns in Classrooms Could Dumb Down Provocative Lessons

Lisa Moore teaches gay and lesbian studies at the University of Texas, where she is a founder of Gun-Free UT. "Shutting down dissent and free speech," she says, "is the opposite of what should happen on a college campus."

On Thursday, around the time a mass shooting was unfolding at a small community college in Oregon, Lisa Moore, an English professor at the University of Texas, was leading a protest against guns on campus. She’s one of the founders of Gun Free UT, a group that sprang up in response to a controversial campus-carry bill that narrowly passed in the state legislature in May. The measure permits the concealed carry of guns in dorms, classrooms, and buildings at state universities and community colleges, while leaving individual schools some latitude to keep parts of their properties firearm-free. The bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbot at a shooting range, makes Texas the eighth state to allow firearms on campus. (In another 23 states, colleges and universities set rules for themselves, but aren’t compelled to allow campus carry.)

Shortly afterward, Gun Free UT — which consists of faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni — put together a petition on change.org, with the hope of sparking a mass movement against the law. So far, nearly 2,500 people have signed the petition, and the group has acquired almost 1,000 Facebook followers. About 200 UT faculty members have pledged to refuse guns in their classrooms. UT chancellor William McCraven, a former Navy Seal, had earlier spoken out against the measure, saying, “I want to make sure that we make our campuses as safe as possible. And the addition of concealed weapons on campus just [doesn’t] seem like a good idea to me.”

Hundreds of people showed up at Thursday’s Gun Free UT rally to voice their opposition to the law, which won’t take effect until August 1, 2016. If nothing else, Moore and the others in Gun Free UT hope to influence how their university system applies the new statute and keep weapons out of classrooms, dorms, and offices. In Moore’s view, how Texas college leaders sort out those details could lead to a grave shift in how students learn and teachers educate.

Has a student ever brought a gun into one of your classes?

No, but I’ve had some experiences that made me very grateful students weren’t allowed to carry guns on campus. I teach gay and lesbian studies. When I first got here in the early ’90s, I had an office on the ground floor of the English building, and I had a lot of posters up advocating for gay rights. One day, someone broke into the office, burned my gay rights posters, and then wrote “depravity kills” all over the windows. It was scary enough for me to know someone was willing to commit a serious act of vandalism. Were it the case that someone could have brought a gun into my office, during office hours, I think I wouldn’t have been able to do my job.

More recently, during the semester after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2008, I was teaching an LGBT literature class. Sometimes the class riles up students, and I had a student that semester who believed, among other things, that gay people were going to hell. After a while, I guess as a kind of protest, he started coming to class and lying on the floor. He also started posting things online about not doing the reading and said that he would stop other students from doing the reading. I got nervous and went to my supervisor, and it turned out this student had problems with mental illness and had, in the past, been taken out of other classes. Subsequently, he was removed from my class, and I wound up teaching the rest of the semester in an undisclosed location, with an armed guard stationed nearby.

How will allowing guns in class change things for your students?  

The classroom is a safe space, and we need security there. We need to be able to provide an atmosphere in which young people can become uncomfortable with certain ideas, and we don’t want someone who will, when they’re uncomfortable, be able to shoot off a firearm. These students are at an age when they’re still not fully in control of their impulses, and they’re away from home for the first time. They’re very vulnerable.

Now what can I do to make the students feel safe? The legislature wrote into the law that if someone tries to prevent someone from a carrying a gun into the class, they could be fined $1,500 dollars a day. So I can’t put up a sign. I mean, I’m allowed to ask students not to bring cell phones into my class. How could that principle not apply to guns?

So going forward, what will you do if you have a disruptive student who happens to be carrying a gun?

I don’t know. I’ve heard faculty say, ‘I’ll just give everyone A’s from now on. I’m not going to risk pissing someone off if they’re going to be armed.’ Others have said they’ll only lecture — they won’t allow classroom discussion because they don’t want things to get heated. Basically, we have to look at ruling out anything — any subject matter — that might seem provocative. It’s very strange. Shutting down dissent and free speech is the opposite of what should happen on a college campus. Personally, I don’t think I would confront a student who was disruptive if he was armed. I’d rather say, ‘Class is dismissed.’

It seems difficult to avoid provocative subject matter entirely in a lot of classes.

It scares me to think about it. I am accustomed to equipping my students with the skills to negotiate difficult issues. Another class I teach is early British literature — a lot of writing from 14th and 15th centuries, a lot of which is about religious controversies. Naturally, this brings up religious controversies in the present. I try to endow my students with the ability to talk openly about religious differences; it’s an important skill for an educated citizenry. In the past, I’ve had students flip desks and leave the room. Which is fine, because something can be learned from that. But that’s different than a student pulling a gun — no one learns anything in that situation. And maybe the student who flips the desk might refrain from doing it if he thinks his classmate is armed. In that sort of environment, I’m going to be much less willing to go into deep and controversial issues, which is a huge loss, since, later on in life, they’ll have to grapple with deep and controversial issues. I try to teach them how to have an honest conversation with someone whose views they find repugnant. In order to learn those skills, you have to feel safe. In my women’s studies classes we talk about feminism, abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and birth control. As you know, these aren’t exactly light topics.

How many professors do you know of that support campus carry?

I don’t know of any. And I’m in touch, via social media, with hundreds and hundreds of professors. Everyone is against it. Even people who are in favor of the right to carry are against the legislation. It’s not even something the people of Texas want. I can’t tell you how many parents we’ve heard from. They say they wouldn’t have sent their children to UT if they’d known about the law.

Have students spoken to you about the law?

I’ve brought it up in all of my classes, and the students are scared, almost universally. One student said, ‘I’m gay, and I already feel like a target.’ He’d been sheltered growing up, and thinking about being in class with someone who is armed and might hate LGBT people really scares him and makes him wonder if he made a mistake coming to UT.

Have any faculty members considered resigning over the issue?

No, and I don’t think that would be very helpful, or practical. It’s not as if there are a ton of academic job openings, which forces us to face the law. But more importantly, I love my job. And unlike the gun lobby and arms industry, who together created this legislation, I have my students’ best interests at heart.

[Photo: Flickr]