by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
Like many other new assistant professors across America, I spent the weeks before the beginning of the new fall semester in orientations covering everything from my university’s tenure requirements to how to fill out my health insurance forms to how to get a campus ID card. Because I am a new assistant professor at a public university in the state of Texas, my orientation also included briefings on the new campus carry laws.
On August 1st students (who have met other requirements for owning a weapon such as age, permits, etc.) were granted legal permission to carry a concealed weapon on the grounds of public universities in Texas, making it the eighth state in the USA to do so. Faculty and students at my own institution seem to be generally uncomfortable with this new law if the students in my classes, flyers handed out by students in front of the library, and watercooler talk among faculty who wondered if they could get our department to pay for bulletproof vests are representative of the sentiment about campus carry laws.
This new law was a part of my new job before I was even offered the position. During my campus interview, after giving my final roundtable interview with the department chair and other faculty members, I waited in the lobby while the group deliberated and decided my fate with the department. While waiting a student approached me and asked if she could interview me and ask my opinion on the impending campus carry law (this was a few months before the law was to be enacted) for a class project. I gave her my opinion from the perspective of a faculty member whose classes often ask students to discuss controversial topics, and as a professor who has strict (but fair) classroom rules such as a no late homework policy, that sometimes upsets students. So before even becoming a professor at a public university in Texas I was already confronted with the reality that many students seem to be against this new law, yet we would all have to find a way to work and learn at our campus with this new law looming.
Once I was offered the job, and I accepted, I had to do a week of orientations and the new campus carry law was a big part of almost all of them. We were given sample statements about weapons that we could include in our syllabi. Additionally, during one faculty orientation we watched an active-shooter preparedness video narrated by a survivor of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. The conversation among faculty at my table quickly turned to how do we think about the tips given to survive a campus attack should something like what happened at Virginia Tech happen at our own campus, given that students may have concealed weapons on their persons? Thinking about how to protect myself and my students takes on a new meaning if my students may have the same weapons as the active shooter(s).
At another meeting before the start of classes we had a discussion on how to handle cases of plagiarism, which included the suggestion that we meet with students in our office to present our accusations and the consequences of those accusations. Again, my thoughts quickly turned to the new campus carry laws. In an environment where students increasingly perceive there to be higher stakes for their grades I do not feel comfortable telling a student that he/she is going to fail my class because I have evidence of plagiarism, alone, in my office, possibly with the door closed, because I was also told to think about their privacy. As a fairly young, black woman I consistently have to take special measures to protect myself from irate students and I have to take things into consideration, such as where and how I deliver bad news to my students that many of my colleagues probably don’t have to think about. Now I have to take these measures and considerations knowing that a student that I upset with bad news could be legally carrying a weapon in my classroom or office.
The campus carry law has also infiltrated my classes. During the second week of school I gave my students an in-class group work assignment—Pick an issue that is currently in the national or world news and describe it from a feminist point of view. Topics ranged from ISIS supporters, rape on college campuses (e.g. recent events at Stanford University), Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails, and Syrian refugees. But one student group chose the topic of campus carry. They were concerned about their safety, fearful of upsetting a student in class and that student retaliating with his/her concealed handgun and the potential for unlawful targeting of certain races and nationalities by the police for lawfully carrying a concealed handgun on campus.
Campus carry comes at a time when we are having more conversations about students’ mental and emotional well-being on campus, including discussions about trigger warnings, “safe spaces” and increasing mental health discussions in freshman orientations. What seems to be largely missing from conversations about campus carry is how the new law affects the mental and emotional well-being of students, faculty, and staff. Emphasis seems to be on the physical safety guns on campus can potentially provide. Regardless of where people stand on the issue, based on my experiences, campus carry is changing the way students learn, changing the way professors teach, and changing campus environments in very noticeable, and not always postive ways.