Austin, Tex. — I’M not sure if this meets the exact definition of irony, but it definitely meets the exact definition of insanity:
Across the country, there’s so much concern for college students’ emotional safety that some schools add “trigger warnings” to novels and other texts. But in Texas, there’s so little concern for college students’ physical safety that concealed firearms will be permitted in classrooms at public universities like the state flagship here.
This wasn’t the doing or desire of administrators and faculty at the University of Texas — most of whom, it seems, are horrified — but of conservative Texas lawmakers on a tireless mission to loosen gun restrictions whenever, however and wherever they can.
To be or not to be armed in Shakespeare class? Your choice!
Guns in dorms? Just the ticket for a good night’s sleep!
It gets better, by which I mean more surreal: The law, which was passed four months ago, will take effect on Aug. 1, 2016. That’s 50 years to the day since one of the first and most infamous mass shootings at an American school, the beginning of a bloody tape loop. It happened right here, at the University of Texas at Austin, where an engineering student climbed to the top of the iconic tower in the center of campus and, for an agonizing hour and a half, sprayed the surrounding area with bullets, killing 14 people and injuring more than 30.
Scores of students and faculty members gathered in the shadow of that tower around midday Thursday to protest the new law. Immediately afterward, when they returned to their computers or checked their smartphones, they learned of the latest massacre, on an Oregon campus, where a gunman killed nine people.
This is madness. When it comes to guns, we have lost our bearings in this country, allowing misguided chest-thumping about a constitutional amendment penned in an entirely different epoch, under entirely different circumstances, to trump all prudence and decency.
President Obama had it right when he said on Thursday that Americans had “become numb to this,” as evidenced by our political paralysis — or, in the case of Texas, our sprint in the wrong direction. He noted that there was now “a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America.”
“So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer?” he added.
They made that argument here in Texas en route to the passage of “campus carry,” the shorthand for the new law.Campus carry. Take a moment with that phrase. Get beyond its amiable alliteration. It’s an endorsement of guns in a haven for scholarship and theater of ideas where there’s an especially powerful case against them.
That case was pressed by the chancellor for the University of Texas system, William McRaven, who hardly winces at the mention of firearms. He was a member of the Navy SEALs who rose to the ranks of admiral and helped to plot the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Before campus carry became law, he told Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune: “I’m an educator now, and my first priority is to the students and the faculty and the administrators and the clinicians.”
“I absolutely understand the Second Amendment,” he added. “I have spent my life fighting for the Second Amendment. You know, you have to ask yourself why did the founding fathers put freedom of speech as the First Amendment? They may have done that because freedom of speech is incredibly important, and if you have guns on campus, I question whether or not that will somehow inhibit our freedom of speech.”
Pressed to elaborate, McRaven continued: “If you’re in a heated debate with somebody in the middle of a classroom and you don’t know whether or not that individual is carrying, how does that inhibit the interaction between students and faculty?”
That concern was raised time and again by faculty members and students with whom I spoke over recent days. Joan Neuberger, a history professor and one of the founders of a new advocacy group called Gun Free UT, told me: “If I know that there’s a possibility that someone will have gun in his pocket, I can’t in good conscience get students to debate the way they do now.”
It can be argued that campus carry isn’t that extreme a change. It permits guns only for people with concealed-handgun permits, for which civilians must be 21 or older and have completed some training. Few undergraduates meet those criteria.
THOSE people were already allowed to have guns on university grounds. They just couldn’t bring them into classrooms, dorms and other inside spaces, some of which may remain off limits. The new law says that the university president can move to exempt certain areas, but university administrators fear that every such move will be legally challenged and prompt political blowback.
What’s more, exempt areas must be prominently identified as such, so students moving around campus would constantly be reminded that while guns might not be allowed over here, they’re perfectly O.K. over there.
What an odd consciousness to instill in students. What a jolting intrusion into the business of learning.
“A big majority of campus was against this,” Xavier Rotnofsky, the student body president at U.T. Austin, told me, adding that he and others found it absurd and offensive that lawmakers acted knowingly “without the consent of the stakeholders.”
Possibly that just encouraged the lawmakers. “Universities are uniquely liberal institutions and they’re targets for conservatives,” Neuberger noted, adding that campus carry may well have been their way of “attacking the bedrock of liberal values that the university represents.”
Private colleges in Texas can opt out of campus carry. Public colleges can’t. Will that make them less attractive to the taxpayers who have supported and need them? Andrea Gore, the chairwoman of the U.T. Austin Faculty Council, told me that she’s worried that “some parents won’t consider the University of Texas because of this.”
Maybe just a few more guns find their way onto campus. Isn’t that a few guns too many, especially in an environment where excessive drinking occurs, among people at an age when anxiety and depression can be acute?
Do we really want to do anything at all to unsettle young men and women in the phase of life when they’re trying to polish the confidence and optimism that will help them tackle the world?
And what justifies a message and a climate of greaterpermissiveness about guns in a country that has witnessed so much shooting and so many funerals?
The students at Texas’s public universities are getting an education all right — into how perverse and nonsensical government can be.