Gun-Free Zone: A Year of Teaching and Working under Campus Carry

“Tell me, what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s just dying slow?” — Alynda Lee Segarra

There were jokes at first among the grad students, since jokes seemed like the only way to make sense of the whole thing. We would hold office hours in laboratories with expensive equipment and hazardous materials, since guns were to be banned in these locations on the basis that “the discharge of a firearm might cause great harm.” If we couldn’t successfully petition the University to install MRI machines in our classrooms, we would take turns holding office hours in the LBJ Library, inside President Johnson’s limousine, but we axed that idea when it turned out the car isn’t actually bulletproof. Maybe we would hold office hours in the college stadium, the ninth largest in the world, since Texas state law has long prohibited guns at sporting events.

Finally, wearily, we grad students at the University of Texas at Austin toyed with the notion of holding office hours in nearby bars, since Texas also prohibits firearms in businesses that make at least 51% of their sales revenue from alcohol. Being grad students, this idea appealed to us. I have been holding my office hours in The Cactus Cafe, a campus hangout and historic music venue, for the two semesters.

Office hours in a bar are like every other part of life in this country today: just as before, only a little more absurd. The Cactus Cafe is a pleasant space: quiet, never too crowded; it’s adorned with handsome fixtures, a small stage and a few friendly regulars. It’s always too early to drink. Students will walk in, catch sight of me, and I will invite them to take a seat. They will have questions or concerns, and we’ll talk. From time to time, students will remark that they didn’t even know the place existed. The bar opened in 1979 and has played host to cult music legends such as Townes Van Zandt, who called the Cactus “his home club.” I don’t ask if the students know who Townes van Zandt is.

Only once or twice during meetings has the subject of campus carry come up, and even then it’s only hinted at. It’s a little odd, but nothing changes, fundamentally. Except it does, because my decision to meet students here is based on a kind of personal risk-assessment designed to minimize, if only by a fraction, my chance of violent death. (There have been three documented cases of weapons discharging on Texas college campuses since guns were allowed last summer.) The need to take precautions like this against rare acts of violence in an educational setting feels incongruous. It’s as if I’m wearing a seatbelt. The student and I often seem to share tacitly this feeling of the absurd. Around me, I see other graduate students and at least one faculty member go through the same process every week. When students aren’t there, we do our own work. I teach a class called Rhetoric of US Exceptionalism.

Texas Senate Bill 11, which permits license holders to carry concealed handguns inside college buildings and classrooms (“campus carry”), took effect on August 1st, 2016. It was the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first truly infamous campus shooting, when Charles Whitman, an engineering student and ex-Marine, climbed the Clock Tower at the University of Texas at Austin with an arsenal and fired on the people below, killing 13 and injuring 30 more. The anniversary was marked with a solemn ceremony on campus and a memorial stone featuring a botched Latin inscription. Resident Latin experts at the University’s Department of Classics, located less than a thousand feet from the memorial site, were not consulted. It took seven months for someone to correct the error.

Authorities, including President Greg Fenves of UT Austin, stressed that the timing of the new law was merely a coincidence. We in the higher education community find that hard to believe. This is, after all, the same state legislature that authored Texas Penal Code 30.06, which mandates that businesses wishing to ban concealed firearms must display large, obnoxious signs with inch-block letters at every entrance. (Banning “open carry” requires a whole other sign.) “30.06” is a type of ammunition. Let nobody say that Texas politicians lack a sense of humor, albeit a dark one.

It’s hard to overstate the contempt that Texas academic workers feel emanating from their state government. In 2015, when Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was asked about fears that SB 11 would hurt university recruitment and cause faculty to flee (fears that have since proven to be justified to some extent), he joked that “if we lost 300 tenured teachers we could get tuition down pretty fast.” Earlier in the same interview, the Lt. Governor outlined his administration’s priorities in Texas politics: “we have to incentivize our brightest and best young people of [sic] going into teaching, particularly math and science.” It’s not clear how Patrick reconciles his pro-education agenda with his disdain for educators.

Campus carry is overwhelmingly opposed by students and teachers alike, yet lawmakers simply do not care. They will claim, as Patrick once did, that “Second Amendment rights shouldn’t stop anywhere.” Never mind the fact that the 2008 Supreme Court ruling opinion in Heller vs. District of Columbia, establishing an individual right to own and carry firearms, states explicitly that “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose” and that “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on […] laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.” Jefferson and Madison (the latter having authored the Second Amendment) banned guns at the university they founded.

This is not about civil rights; this is just plain bad public policy, and everybody knows it. Private universities in Texas can choose to opt in or out of SB 11; to date, just one private university in Texas has chosen to allow campus carry. UT Austin is a public university, and so has no choice. It receives just 12% of its funding from the State of Texas, a decline of roughly 75% since the 1980s. The University has a long history of state interference, yet the demands of lawmakers have not diminished along with the proportional decrease in public funding. Governments can and should attach conditions to funds, no matter how small, but it’s hard to justify legislators’ meddling given their lack of regard for an institution they claim to support, especially a flagship institution like the University of Texas.

Virtually nobody in any position of authority or permanence at UT Austin thought this was a good idea. President Fenves has said publicly that he opposes campus carry. UT Chancellor William McRaven, a retired four-star admiral and former commander of U.S. Special Forces, wrote in a letter to state lawmakers in January 2015, before the bill was passed: “There is great concern that the presence of handguns, even if limited to licensed individuals age 21 or older, will lead to an increase in both accidental shootings and self-inflicted wounds.” Nevertheless, we as an academic community were forced to go along with it, and somehow adopt best practice in the face of the absurd. A report issued by the UT Campus Carry Policy Working Group illustrates the bind in which experts found themselves when forced to confront SB 11, and the procedural nonsense that resulted:

“Every member of the Working Group [19 in total] — including those who are gun owners and license holders — thinks it would be best if guns were not allowed in classrooms. Nevertheless, the Working Group does not recommend that classrooms should be designated a gun-exclusion zone.”

Alexei Yurchak, Professor of Anthropology at Berkeley, has written about what he calls “hypernormalization,” a rhetorical process prevalent in the USSR whereby old forms of authoritative discourse become fixed, no matter how disconnected they are from present reality. The British filmmaker Adam Curtis, in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, adapted Yurchak’s concept to describe the bizarre nature of contemporary life in post-industrial society: everyone is aware, Curtis argues, that our government, our institutions, our society, the status quo in general, contain contradictions and absurdities beyond reconciliation, yet we all carry on with our daily lives as if it were normal, because we cannot create or even imagine an alternative.

Here are just a few more contradictions that govern life for academic workers in the United States today. The majority of the US public has long favored stricter gun laws, and their views are backed up by experts, yet this is never reflected in policy. In fact, in this country, federally funded research on gun-violence has been effectively banned since 1996. SB 11 is poorly reasoned and even more poorly implemented, supported by no credible authorities on gun violence, yet despite this, bona fide experts on campus and in public institutions must grit their teeth and work under the assumption, even the vain hope, that our society values rationality. The Lt. Governor of Texas jokes that we are expendable, yet we’re supposed to ignore his remarks, believing instead, despite very little evidence to support our belief, that we are valued. None of this is normal. (It does however feel a little hyper-normal.)

Since campus carry was implemented, some notable protests have highlighted the law’s absurdity. These demonstrations have died down, mostly. You might be tempted to say that colleges have gone quiet on this issue. Yet as you walk around the campus of UT Austin, you’ll notice signs in the windows of almost every building proclaiming in loud fonts and louder colors, “GUN-FREE UT.” From time to time, you’ll still see unmistakable orange T-shirts emblazoned with the same slogan, remnants of rallies past. In my department’s building, on almost every office door, there are signs saying, “Ask me about my office gun policy.” (Faculty members are allowed to ban guns in their offices, a privilege not afforded to graduate students, most of whom lack private work space on campus.) Some faculty and staff hold weekly “Peace Zones,” interdisciplinary meetings that help attendees to cope with and adapt to life in a society that appears ever more hostile.

Much has been made of the implications this law has for safety on our campuses. Supporters of campus carry claim that having the ability to defend themselves in an “active shooter” situation will increase everyone’s chances of survival. Opponents of the law counter that there are almost no documented cases of an armed civilian stopping a mass shooting in progress. (In fact it usually makes things worse.) What often gets lost in this debate is something that educators keep repeating: practical issues aside, guns simply don’t belong in classrooms. It seems an odd thing to have to repeat.

One of the leaders of the Texas pro-gun movement routinely claims that there is no difference in principle between a school and his own dining room, and that the need for self-defense knows no bounds. This is the same kind of bloodless, undergraduate libertarian logic that leads advocates to sue for their right to carry firearms in churches, court houses and psychiatric hospitals, with little regard for the vastly different functions these spaces play in our society. It’s the same logic that sends men brandishing rifles into police stations to prove a point. Almost nobody wants to be around these people (even the NRA conceded that open carry advocates are “downright weird” before backtracking) but, due to their disproportionate influence via powerful lobbying groups who care only about industry profits, they effectively write our laws. And they’re not finished. So far 10 states have eliminated the requirement to hold a license in order to carry guns, and lawmakers in at least 20 additional states are looking to follow suit.

The discomfort of educators on this issue often gets chalked up to liberal skittishness, but we should not underestimate the scope of the pro-gun project in the US, and nor should we overlook its fringes, which in fact seem to determine its agenda. Open Carry Texas states on its website that part of the group’s mission is to “condition Texans to feel safe around law-abiding citizens that choose to carry.” This is a euphemistic way of phrasing what in reality is a profound re-imagining of civilian life itself. Open carry groups acknowledge our deeply-ingrained aversion to weaponry and seek to override it. Their utopian endgame involves every citizen carrying the means of quick and easy death in their pockets at all times, imagining that this is how people would like to live. “An armed society is a polite society,” they say, in a spirit of supremely naive speculation. There’s a reason why most people recoil from this vision, and why it’s never been been sustained anywhere on Earth: it’s a dangerous experiment, antithetical to the principles of civil society we seek to establish in our classrooms. America is the closest we’ve ever come to a truly “armed society,” (there are now more guns than people in this country) and it has the highest homicide rate in the developed world.

The fights over campus carry and the possibility of peaceful civilian life on campus may seem new, but UT Austin, like the nation as a whole, has always sustained intolerable contradictions. The same building that houses the College of Liberal Arts, the Humanities Institute and the Department of Native American Indigenous Studies is also home to the Departments of Air Force, Military and Naval Science. In a courtyard, somewhat hidden from public view, are sculptures of an artillery gun and an F-22 dedicated to graduating classes of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The university motto: “What Starts Here Changes the World.” At the foot of the clock tower where Charles Whitman opened fire in 1966, on a day lawmakers would have us remember and forget at the same time, the words “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” are engraved. The same tower overlooks the East Mall where a bronze statue of Martin Luther King stands proudly, and the South Mall, where decaying idols of Confederate generals nestle in shady alcoves, hoping not to be seen. Next to a large fountain reportedly commissioned to herald national reconciliation, a plaque that usually commemorates Southern sacrifice of life and, tellingly, “property” in the Civil War is currently removed for cleaning. The fountain flows only for special occasions.

Faculty, students and staff on our campuses live with and confront some of the darkest legacies of US history, discuss some of the most difficult problems imaginable–and yet the University has a reputation for being a shelter, a “safe space.” It is and it isn’t. Universities are, statistically speaking, far safer than surrounding cities and towns, but our students are products of those cities and towns: they carry no fewer traumas than the rest of us. Many are veterans, some are refugees. I feel immensely grateful and privileged to be doing the work that I am doing, but I’m also holding my office hours in a bar because laws that most of us acknowledge make no sense keep getting passed, and there doesn’t seem to be any stopping them. I’m expendable, but I’m also vital to the future of our nation’s youth. I’m one of the “brightest and best,” but I’m also a snowflake who should quit if I’m not happy. The desire to limit weapons is not a strange one, and yet American educators, experts and human beings who express this desire are made to feel more like strangers every day.

In the midst of these contradictions, in positions that become ever more precarious, we here at UT Austin must believe, absurd though it may seem, that our long national descent into militarism and authoritarianism is not inevitable. I cannot foresee an end to the spread of an ever more expansive and chilling gun culture in this state and beyond, yet I must hope for such an end. My work demands it. While it still remains to be completed, our task as researchers and academics, here in Austin and around the country, is to imagine alternatives in a world where none seems to exist.

I was going to leave it there, but there’s a sad little addendum to this story. On March 27, with just over a month left in the semester, I received an email from a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, asking if I was aware that the signs at the Cactus Cafe had changed overnight. The venue was suddenly no longer subject to the 51% rule, and now bore a generic sign prohibiting the unlicensed carrying of firearms (a meaningless rule, since unlicensed carry is currently illegal in most public places in Texas). Grad students and activists on campus were baffled. Apparently, the University realized that the liquor license for the Cactus covered the entire Union Building in which the bar is housed, which meant that alcohol could no longer count for 51% of total revenue, because the Union Building contains a food court.

The University issued no official statement and made no effort to notify grad students or faculty who had been using the venue for office hours, despite the significant (even international) press coverage we received. In response to inquiries from the Chronicle, a spokesman for the University said simply: “It was an innocent mistake.” We still don’t know what prompted the University to review the liquor license. Sources at the Cactus Cafe told me that they may have received a complaint or FOIA request from a gun-rights group, possibly from out of state. Such vindictiveness is hard to fathom, until you understand that gun advocates are just that: relentless extremists who live and work on behalf of the objects they covet, from which they reap power and profit. Our brief stint at the Cactus Cafe didn’t mean all that much in the end, but even symbolic resistance to the gun lobby is intolerable to them.

So we’re left once more with absurdity. The 51% rule exists for a good reason: because alcohol and guns don’t mix. Everyone knows this. Somehow, this rule no longer applies to a bar on a college campus, not despite but because of the fact that the bar is surrounded by hundreds of students eating their lunch and doing their homework, because a group of discontented insurrectionists with no connection to the University issued a complaint and the University buckled without a sound. There’s no telling if the administration will seek to revise the license in order to implement the 51% rule again, but considering that they have yet to give a satisfactory explanation of this situation to the people they are supposed to represent, I’m guessing they’re just hoping we all forget about this. And we might very well end up forgetting, because who could live with so many things that just don’t make sense?