Last week’s mass shooting at an Oregon community college loomed large at the University of Texas at Austin on Monday afternoon, as students and faculty met to discuss the implementation of a campus carry law passed by the Texas legislature earlier this year.
“This is an issue about which people feel passionately,” said UT law professor Steven Goode, chair of the working group that will recommend campus-carry policies later this fall. “Last Thursday’s tragic events in Oregon have done nothing but intensify those feelings for many people.”
More than 40 faculty, staff, students, and parents spoke at the public forum, and most expressed opposition to S.B. 11, which requires state universities to implement policies that do not “generally prohibit” concealed carry on campus. UT-Austin has permitted concealed carry on campus grounds since 1995, but S.B. 11, said Goode, extends it into all university buildings.
Because the law allows each public university to establish policies based on “specific safety considerations, and the uniqueness of the campus environment,” opponents at UT-Austin have called for the working group to carve out exemptions for areas like science labs, graduate housing (where many students live with their families), and the university’s new medical school, due to open next June.
Others, including many faculty, have urged the university to take the more drastic step of prohibiting guns from all classrooms, a policy that would almost certainly fail to comply with S.B. 11 and would likely prompt a legal challenge from gun-rights activists.
The forum was the second held at UT-Austin in five days, and the first since a gunman killed eight students and a teacher at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Monday’s event, while civil, saw more pointed exchanges between supporters and opponents of the new law, and the Roseburg shooting weighed heavily on the discussion.
“Thursday was a tragedy,” said Tina Maldonado, a UT staff member and proponent of campus carry. “We can say that will not happen here. Campus carry is going to make this a safer campus because of the probability of guns in the classroom.”
One of several points of contention throughout the forum was the status of concealed carry at UCC and other Oregon colleges. Maldonado and other campus-carry supporters claimed that UCC was a gun-free zone, but colleges in Oregon are prohibited from banning guns by a 2011 state appellate court decision, and concealed carry is widely practiced by UCC students. John Parker Jr., a student and veteran, was carrying on campus at the time of the shooting and decided not to intervene.
“I can’t believe that if that classroom in Oregon had had concealed weapons holders in there,” said music professor Martha Hilley, “that it would have necessarily saved anyone.”
About a dozen of the speakers Monday wore orange shirts bearing the name of Gun Free UT, a campus group that has organized against S.B. 11 since the Texas legislature passed it in May. Several members of the group unveiled a banner announcing that 300 UT faculty members had pledged not to allow guns in their classrooms. That number has risen as the issue has been debated on campus in recent days, and an online petition started by the group has collected nearly 4,000 signatures.
Goode said the working group, which plans to make its policy recommendations by early December, had received more than 2,600 written comments through its website. Both supporters and opponents of campus carry at Monday’s forum agreed that the members of the working group were in a difficult position.
“No one seems to trust the person sitting next to them,” said Brayden Eychner, a UT student and veteran who said he plans to carry on campus when the law goes into effect next August. “Are they a law-abiding concealed-carrier, or a gun-toting fanatic?”
“In the wake of recent events both here and across the country,” he said, “it’s hard to blame them.”
[Photo: AP/Eric Gay]