This is a guest blog written by Joyce Carter, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on College Composition and Communication.
In the fall of 2015, I served on my university’s task force to establish rules to implement a new Texas law called Campus Carry. This law, which opened up university campuses to the state’s existing concealed-carry handgun rules, specified that each campus would create committees to meet with constituencies, survey their population, and recommend to their president which buildings and areas would be labeled “gun-free.” The law made it clear that campuses couldn’t generally prohibit lawfully-licensed concealed handgun owners from being on campus. But the degree of local campus control over these gun-free zones had been a hard-won victory by higher education at the previous legislative session, and the task force felt it was critical that we do a thorough and fair job in exercising our local control in this first year of the new law.
The task force was certainly not, as some feared, a rubber stamp for any group, pro- or anti-handgun, and was composed of representatives from every constituency: students, faculty, staff, administrators, campus police, dorms, campus life, and athletic events. We met multiple times, held town hall meetings, conducted surveys, did a comparative analysis of other states and other Texas schools, and considered an incredibly diverse range of responses in fulfilling our charge. So not only was I supposed to represent the faculty in this process, but I was also supposed to learn from all our interactions with the university community. And learn I did.
As it turned out, the faculty wasn’t of one mind. Nor were the students, nor were the staff. In fact, what we began to realize is that there were two distributions, one around a gun-free campus and one around a concealed-handgun campus. Since dividing the campus into two halves, like King Solomon’s solution, was not feasible, we tried to find some overlap between the two groups while meeting our charge to implement the law.
The second thing I learned was just how slippery the term “gun-free” really is. When a space is declared “gun free,” what is the ontological state of that space? Does the sign alone create a safe space? Or does safety require measures like metal detectors and law enforcement? And what happens if a sign that says “gun-free” actually acts as a magnet for people determined to hurt others? These issues grew in my mind, and in the collective mind of the task force. Our concerns had little to do with opening up the campus to citizens carrying lawful and licensed weapons, and everything to do with campus safety.
The third thing I realized was that it was impossible for most people, task force members and university community alike, to remain focused on our actual charge. Many in our community felt that there should be no handguns on campus, and that this new law was opening a dangerous door. But according to university police, our campus had always had approximately 800 handguns on campus, some locked in cars, some carried legally around the open spaces of campus, and some carried unlawfully in backpacks and briefcases. The police further estimated that this law would create approximately 200-400 lawful gun-carriers, some who brought their guns from their glove boxes into their office, for example, and some who were newly-licensed handgun carriers. Like others around me, I began to have difficulty keeping separate our task force’s charge of creating policy for concealed handguns in buildings (the new law) from what we were learning about existing policies for carrying guns in cars and open spaces (the existing, 20-yr-old law) and about the campus police’s estimates of handguns currently on campus.
My stance? I was agnostic. I wanted to represent opinions I had heard, to learn from others, to gather statistics from other states, and to bounce ideas off other taskforce members. I study argumentation, and am particularly fond of deliberative rhetoric, and I found this semester-long process quite thorough: tiring, painstaking, enlightening, skeptical, empirical, and exhilarating.
By the end, I could not remember which task force members belonged to the faculty, to the staff, to the students. Instead, there were styles of deliberation, types of interrogation. I did have my own localized knowledge about what it’s like to park in the parking lot, walk inside a building, go to my office, then go to classrooms and other meetings during the day, regardless of whether I might be armed or not, and I think it was important to bring the day-to-day world of a professor into the task force. Staff and resident hall managers don’t go to teach during their work days, but they have other pathways, and their insights about the movement of people around campus were valuable.
In this way, I think task force members brought not only their personal opinions and their critical thinking abilities, but also knowledge of how different groups go about their time on campus, how they perceive safety, how they view the campus itself.
These things matter. So did the law, and it was never a serious possibility that our task force would recommend to our president that he simply ignore the law (as some in our survey had advised). We live in a world with guns, and we were asked to recommend policies that would exist within that world.
Constrained by the wording of the law and suspecting that these issues of campus safety and concealed handguns would be argued and litigated in the future, we crafted recommendations that allowed legal handguns in most buildings except those with special populations, those containing dangerous materials, or those featuring ticketed events. Knowing that almost all undergraduate dorms had residents under the legal age for obtaining a concealed handgun license, we prohibited firearms in all dorms but the graduate dorm.
But more important, to my mind, was how we came to see the issue of guns as just one of several campus safety issues we should address together. Studying other states that have had such laws gave us some perspective and helped us put the possibility of legal handgun safety into the context of overall campus safety. The odds are, for example, that bicyclists and pedestrians will be injured on campus at higher rates than those injured from accidental firearm discharges.
Likewise, drug and alcohol deaths and injuries are far more likely to attend our campus population. The ongoing concern about sexual assault and sexual health must also be put into the foreground. And it’s always possible that there will be an active shooter on campus, an entirely separate category of gun concern from our task force’s charge. Some of the most innovative suggestions from the task force and our focus group meetings centered on building gun safety into the overall training already experienced by students, faculty, and staff—viewing the implementation of Texas law not as a challenge but as an opportunity to build a coherent culture of safety on our campus.
It was an outcome that was the product of much deliberation, much argumentation, and much discussion—and it was a process and an outcome I had certainly not expected when we started.
Joyce Locke Carter is an associate professor of rhetoric and technical communication at Texas Tech University. She received both her MBA and her PhD in rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin.