Keep Calm & Campus Carry On?

By Tommy Tobin*

Starting this August, Texas law will mandate that the state’s public colleges and universities allow the carrying of concealed weapons onto campus. Next academic year, many individuals with concealed weapons will be able to walk onto campus, into classrooms, and around students as long as they have the requisite concealed weapon permit.

The so-called “Campus Carry” law has sparked considerable controversy. An influential dean has left the University of Texas’ flagship campus in Austin, citing the law as the primary reason for his departure. A Nobel Laureate will bar handguns from his course, regardless of potential litigation. The University of Houston was roundly criticized for a slideshow that asked faculty to “be careful discussing sensitive topics,” limit their access to students outside of class, not “go there” if they sensed anger, and drop controversial topics from their curricula.

While the law provides mandates for public institutions, private colleges and universities may opt-in to Campus Carry. According to the Texas Tribune, each private university that has addressed this issue has decided not to allow concealed weapons.

Texas state officials, especially Attorney General Ken Paxton, have interpreted the law broadly. The Attorney General recently delivered an expansive Advisory Opinion, which found that public institutions could not bar handguns from dormitories or individual classrooms. According to the Attorney General, university community members whose rights have been limited could file a legitimate suit against university officials. While the Advisory Opinion does not carry the force of law, it is persuasive authority for state courts examining this issue.

The state’s public institutions must follow the law’s mandate. The University of Texas’ Austin campus has recently released its much-debated Campus Carry rules. Among other things, the new rules will allow guns in classrooms and largely ban guns from dormitories. Even so, concealed weapons will be allowed in common areas, family members visiting dormitories will be allowed to carry firearms, and staff members working in the dorms may also be armed. At least one advocacy group, Students for Concealed Carry, has already noted that it will “shift its focus to litigation” against these new rules.

Advocates on both sides are lawyering up for a protracted legal battle. On one side, university community members argue that they are exercising their constitutional rights. On the other, advocates like Gun Free UT are concerned at increased likelihood of violent activity on campus with the increased number of weapons.

Texas is not alone. In the wake of high-profile campus incidents around the country, numerous state legislatures have discussed proposals to allow concealed carry on their college and university campuses. Lawmakers in Georgia have recently passed a Campus Carry bill, which is awaiting its Governor’s signature.

If public universities intend to foster dialogue, debate, and even disagreement, do guns promote campus safety or undermine it? After calling it an “odd issue” and “very confusing,” one public college system spokesperson provided an excellent articulation of the Campus Carry controversy: “We’re basically encouraging people to express their opinion and engage in debate, and have a place where controversy can be explored and discussed. And generally, having weapons in those kind of environments is not considered a good thing.”

Texas courts and the nation’s state legislatures will soon decide just how “general” that consideration has become in today’s America.

 

* Tommy Tobin is a Teaching Fellow at the Harvard Economics Department and a student at Harvard Law School.

 

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