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Texas expands campus concealed carry, overriding free speech concerns

Texas' law allowing concealed weapons at public colleges took effect Monday amid a fractious debate and concerns from educators about threats to academic freedom.

Jon Herskovitz/Reuters
A stone memorial to 17 people who died in a mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin on August 1, 1966 sits on the university's campus. On Monday, the 50th anniversary of the shooting, a hotly-debated state law allowing concealed weapons on public colleges takes effect.

A Texas law allowing concealed handguns on public college campuses takes effect Monday, following more than a year of often-fraught debate.

Proponents say the law is intended to be an expansion of licensed gun owners' existing rights to carry concealed weapons into public spaces, including quads at public campuses. Previously, Texans with a proper license were allowed to bring their weapons onto campus, but not inside buildings. But for many faculty members, the law has raised alarms that it will inflame, rather than ward off, possible conflicts.

"Our job means we sometimes have to confront students about uncomfortable issues," Jacqueline Vickery, an assistant professor who teaches media arts at the University of North Texas, told The Dallas Morning News. As a result of the law, she said, "I will no longer have these conversations in the privacy of my office but will always ask another colleague to sit in with me in a more open space."

The law also mirrors a broader debate about the expansion of concealed carry into public spaces where weapons have often been considered off-limits, including libraries, changes that have proven challenging for many educators.

"College campuses are marketplaces of ideas, and a rigorous academic exchange of ideas may be chilled by the presence of weapons," wrote several educational associations, including the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement in November.

But gun rights advocates said the Texas law, which allows anyone 21 or older with a Texas handgun license to carry a concealed weapon, is intended to increase personal protections on campuses.

"Why is it OK for a student go to a movie theater on a Friday, a mall on Saturday and church on Sunday, and carry a concealed weapon, but when they get to school on Monday, they cannot?" Antonia Okafor, the southwest regional director of Students For Concealed Carry, told The Wall Street Journal. "This is about personal protection."

The rules have particularly provoked debate at the University of Texas at Austin, where Monday will also mark the 50th anniversary of a shooting that killed 17 at the university’s clock tower, considered the first mass campus shooting in modern US history.

The coupling of the two events has angered some survivors, but lawmakers, eager to implement the law before fall semesters begin in mid-August, have called the shared date a coincidence. 

The new law, which bars convicted felons and people with a history of mental illness from obtaining a concealed carry permit, allows individual colleges to set guidelines for where weapons can be allowed on campus, so long as their rules do not in effect prohibit guns from campus. 

At UT Austin, for example, concealed weapons will not be allowed inside dorms, or at sporting events. In a move to decrease the risk of a gun accidentally being fired, the school has proposed requiring those who want to carry a semiautomatic handgun to do so without a round in the chamber.

In other states, however, state laws can at times supersede individual policies barring guns. One example is at public libraries. Following a decision by a Michigan appeals court that overruled a local library policy in Lansing, Mich., Diana Gleason, a librarian at the University of Idaho College of Law, found that handguns are allowed in public libraries, regardless of individual libraries' policies, in roughly 30 states.

Throughout the country, regulations at public colleges can vary. Eighteen states ban concealed carry weapons on college campuses, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, while 23 allow each school to determine its own policies. Texas now joins seven other states allowing concealed weapons on public campuses.  

Three professors at UT Austin who say they have faced previous threats from students have sued the school, arguing for the right to ban guns from their specific classrooms. Campus president Gregory L. Fenves, who has said he opposes the concealed carry law but will uphold it, has said the suit "represents the feelings of many faculty."

Many private universities, which can opt out of the state law in Texas, have also spoken out against the rules.

"There is no evidence that allowing the carrying of guns on our campus will make the campus safer," David Leebron, the president of Rice University, said in December.

At the University of Houston, a public school, the faculty senate has issued a set of recommendations suggesting that faculty "may want to be careful discussing sensitive topics" or "drop certain topics from your curriculum" as a result of the law, feeding critics' concerns that concealed weapons in classrooms will harm students' education and freedom of speech. 

Houston's guidelines allow for concealed weapons in classrooms, laboratories with non-hazardous materials, and faculty offices, but not at sporting events.

But Elizabeth Pauley, the police chief at Texas Woman’s University, noted despite misconception of the law as a more expansive open carry rule – which is still barred – the introduction of concealed weapons could be less significant than some believe.

"It's just a matter of education and communication," she told the paper. "Almost every group we are with, they are satisfied with the explanation. It's a lot of the fear of the unknown."

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