Why private Texas colleges are saying no to guns

Texas public schools must allow concealed guns into campus buildings starting August 1. But few private colleges are eager to have firearms on campus. 

Ralph Barrera/ Austin American-Statesman via AP
Gun supporters walk down Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas during a rally to celebrate open carry gun rights in this January 1, 2016 file photo. As part of the state's new gun laws, students at public universities will be able to bring their firearms on campus.

When University of Texas at Austin President Gregory Fenves announced new policies to comply with Senate Bill 11, which orders public colleges to allow licensed, concealed guns into campus buildings, he made his reluctance clear — not surprising, many thought, at the state's flagship school in liberal, blue-dot Austin. 

But most of the state's private schools, which can choose whether to allow firearms on campus, have said "No, thanks," including traditionally conservative colleges like Southern Methodist University and Baylor University, both of which are Christian-affiliated. So far, more than 20 campuses have said they'll stick to their former policies, many of which ban weapons. 

The new law, which will go into effect August 1, has set off debate about not only about the role of guns in the world, but that of colleges: Is a campus just one more meeting place for adults, who should enjoy the same rights they have off-campus, or should schools' special purpose make them weapon-free?

The question is far from unique to Texas. Only about a dozen states explicitly forbid concealed guns on campus, according to Armed Campuses, a group that opposes them. But the size of Texas, and its public university system, had given its new law outsized significance.

More than 200,000 students attend public universities in Texas, including about 50,000 at UT Austin alone. 

"I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date," President Fenves said this week, announcing the new campus policies in line with the law. 

"The presence of handguns at an institution of higher learning is contrary to our mission of education and research, which is based on inquiry, free speech, and debate," he wrote in a letter to UT System Chancellor and former Navy Admiral William McRaven. Mr. McRaven has also opposed the law out of concern that students may harm themselves and each other.  

Public campuses are still allowed to carve out certain gun-free zones, including laboratories, dorm rooms (but not common areas), areas with children, and athletic events. Open carry is not permitted, although it is now allowed off-campus in Texas.

Not all university leaders agree with Fenves' and McRavens' reluctance. Many gun rights supporters are puzzled at schools' concerns about keeping students safe: To them, safety is a key reason to permit guns on campus, not forbid them. They point to violent campus attacks like this fall's fatal shooting at Oregon's Umpqua Community College, where guns were not allowed, and argue that the presence of licensed gun owners deters would-be killers.

That's why many think August 1 is an appropriate, not ironic, date for new campus laws to go into effect. On August 1, 1966, a UT Austin student fatally shot 12 people from the campus watchtower, one of the era's first mass shootings. 

Others say that, while guns could make students safer, the real issue is who is carrying the guns: licensed grownups. Only those over age 21 may apply for a concealed carry permit in Texas. 

"These are 21-year-age citizens of this state," Senator Brian Birdwell, who authored Senate Bill 11, said in November. "We ought to treat them as the adults they are."

Images of drunken student arguments descending into shooting violence play to overblown stereotypes of college life, one Southern Methodist alumna argued, pointing out that most partying takes place off campus, anyway.

The view that universities should be treated like other public spaces was part of Senator Brian Birdwell's logic when he wrote the law, which does not mandate that private schools must allow concealed carry. Private businesses can decide whether to allow guns, Sen. Birdwell argued, and the same holds for colleges. They're "no different than Starbucks," except they sell a different product, he said, claiming it's up to a "market decision" whether higher ed should welcome guns. 

For many educators, however, concealed carry seems antithetical to the spirit of a college campus. 95 percent of university presidents surveyed by Ball State University researchers said they oppose concealed firearms on campus

More than 300 professors at UT Austin have signed a letter in protest, and many say they won't allow guns in their particular classroom, afraid that vigorous debate and controversial ideas essential to learning could spark violence, or that students will be more hesitant to argue with each other when they know their classmates could be armed.

Some also worry about recruiting future students and faculty nervous about armed campuses. 

Leaders at SMU and Baylor did not elaborate on their decisions not to permit concealed carry. SMU President R. Gerald Turner said in a press release that students and staff "overwhelmingly" opposed changing the school's gun-free policy. 

At Baylor, however, President Ken Starr, who served in the George H. W. Bush administration as solicitor general, has made his opinion known.

"My own view is that it is a very unwise public policy, with all due respect to those who feel strongly [and] very, very rooted in constitutional values as they see them," he said at a symposium last year. "We're here as seats of learning, and I do not think this is helpful."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Texas A&M University as a private school. Texas A&M is a public research university.

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