As a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Cal Jillson is well versed in the debate that just concluded with the Texas Legislature approving a “campus carry” bill.
“There are various concerns,” Jillson said. “You have conservative ideology and support for the Second Amendment overriding the practicalities of running a college campus.”
But it’s more than just politics and dealing with the unknown about what lies ahead, he said.
“It’s the fear of .45-caliber handguns,” he said. “Some people joke but there is a level concern of handing midterms back to that kid with a three-day beard, with his hat on backward, sitting in the back of the room and you know he got a [test score of] 46.”
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Jillson’s comments Tuesday came on a quiet day on college campuses across Texas, as most students have gone home for the summer.
Questions abound about what’s next after Gov. Greg Abbott signs the bill that will allow licensed Texans to carry concealed handguns on campus.
Supporters say it will make college campuses safer by not preventing licensed gun owners from defending themselves and possibly saving lives should a mass shooting occur, such as the one that unfolded at Virginia Tech University in 2007.
Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed. And Democratic lawmakers and some university leaders worry about increased security costs and the bill’s effect on recruiting potential teachers and students from other states.
“The perception in academia will be that Texas is a free-fire zone with yokels in the classrooms packing heat,” said Lynn W. Tatum, a professor at Baylor University in Waco and the former president of the Texas conference of the American Association of University Professors. “Why would a top-rated academic leave the University of Virginia, UCLA or Duke to come to the University of Texas, A&M or Baylor if these great universities are perceived of as ‘gunslinger junction?’”
Fewer than 10 states have provisions allowing the carrying of concealed weapons on public college campuses, including Colorado, Idaho and Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About 20 others ban concealed weapons on campus, including California, Florida and New York, and more than 20 others, including Alabama and Arizona, leave the decision to each college.
At Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, college officials have already said they will try to figure out what “will be in the best interest of our campus community” after the measure becomes law.
A number of students on campus Tuesday morning said they didn’t want to talk to the media about the issue. Some simply didn’t know about it; others did but didn’t want to weigh in.
North Texas views
TCU student body President Maddie Reddick said it’s a relief that private universities will be allowed leeway when the bill becomes law.
“I am pleased to see the opt-out portion of the bill remains intact, allowing our institution to decide what is best for the TCU community,” Reddick said, stressing she’s speaking for herself and not on behalf of the entire student body.
“If the bill is signed into law, I am looking forward to representing the student voice in discussions about the effect of SB11 on our campus in the fall. However, as a senior student, I personally have concerns about student safety and well-being that accompany the potential of opting in,” she said.
George Baltimore, a 20-year-old TCU student from Arlington, said he’s not sure why most students would carry concealed handguns on campus.
“During the day, when you are going to class, there’s no need for one,” he said. “At night, when you park in a faraway parking lot, there might be a need.
“But in the dorms — where would they be?” he asked. “I don’t believe in handguns on campus.”
Neal Smatresk, president of the University of North Texas, distributed a statement to “UNT community members” saying, “While passage of the law is not what we had hoped for, we are now reviewing the legislation thoroughly to ensure that we fully understand our latitude in developing regulations for carrying concealed handguns on campus.”
He added that he will have extensive consultations with other campus leaders and police groups statewide to better understand the costs and training issues arising from the legislation.
Added Smatresk: “In the coming year, we will conduct a thorough and thoughtful process, and I assure all of our students and their families, faculty and staff members, and visitors that we remain committed to providing the best educational experience in Texas in a safe campus community.”
There are plenty of supporters of campus carry as well, and they argue that opponents have tried to blow the potential impact out of proportion.
“An armed society is a safe society, so any time you have gun control there is far more opportunity to become victims,” said state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican and Tea Party favorite who was a leading proponent of open carry and campus carry and who often does his legislative work at the Capitol, including sitting in committee hearings while wearing his concealed .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
“The criminals aren’t going to obey the laws. It’s the responsible folks who we should be encouraging to protect themselves in the community they live in.”
Students for Concealed Carry, a national, grassroots organization, agrees.
“We are looking forward to the next few years as concerned students lobby their university administrators and regents to not ban carry on individual campuses,” according to a statement from the group. “We will work to finish the job and ensure licensed, law-abiding adults are not prohibited from defending themselves simply because they choose to pursue higher education.”
At Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, officials have said they will review the issue once it becomes law and then “determine within the letter of the law what works best for our campus.”
“If there is an opt-out provision, the administration would determine whether campus carry was in the best interest of our faculty, staff, students and campus visitors,” said John Veilleux, vice president for marketing and communications. “After doing so, the administration would bring a recommendation to the board for its approval as it is the board’s role to set policy.”
National groups such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities are speaking out against campus carry.
“This dangerous legislation will strip most authority for establishing campus weapons policy from those who understand colleges best — governing boards and college presidents, working in consultation with students, faculty, staff and law enforcement,” according to a statement from the group.
“This new law will make Texas public colleges and universities less safe for students, faculty and staff. This is a major step, but not the last step, toward forcing colleges to allow guns in all facets of campus life.”
For now, many are just waiting to see what’s next.
“I am a gun rights person, but from philosophical perspective it is terrible that we have to arm ourselves against our fellow humans,” said Allan Saxe, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. “And of all places college campuses, which are supposed to be about learning, contemplation, reading, discussion and quiet serenity.
“But I do understand the problem,” he said.
“I have often joked that soon I will be ‘packing heat.’ I have found out that many students, men and women, already carry many weapons (not handguns) in their cars or on their persons for safety.”
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The New York Times.
Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610