That conservative forces have long sought to squash dissent and curtail rigorous academic debate on campuses is far from a secret. From the militarization of many campuses, academic repression of faculty, excessive and difficult-to-navigate bureaucracies, limitations on free speech and more, college students, staff and faculty members today face many challenges as they seek to explore, debate and take action on critical and difficult issues. The gun lobby has seized on this environment of academic stifling, promoting firearms as the answer to an array of problems on campuses and beyond. Don’t want to get raped? Carry a gun, or it’s your own fault. The best way to prevent an active shooter situation? Everyone pack heat. The chilling effect of the campus carry laws that have been enacted has been immediately visible.
The state of Texas passed a campus carry law that is set to take effect on August 1, 2016. Already, professors at the University of Houston were told that once the new law is effective, they might want to “be careful discussing sensitive topics,” “drop certain topics from your curriculum,” “‘Not go there’ if you sense anger,” “limit students access off hours,” “go to appointment-only office hours” and “only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances.” Evidently, if I taught at that university my sociology classes could no longer cover … well … anything. The NRA supports campus carry bills being considered in Florida, and in a memo to NRA members and friends dated November 2, 2015, former NRA President Marion Hammer denounced educators who oppose the bill, amping up the rhetoric about how gun-free campuses are unsafe, because “murderers, rapists, terrorists, and robbers may commit crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims.” Hammer’s memo even uses quotations around the words “educators,” clearly implying that the many college administrators, professors and faculty members who do not support campus carry laws have dubious credentials.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has noted that case law is clear: faculty have primary responsibility for determining curriculum, and academic freedom is critical for teaching their courses such that they include the most essential and evolving topics in their fields. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has issued similar calls to vigorously resist efforts to undermine academic freedom by people with “ideological or commercial agendas.” It is hard to see the NRA and its cronies as anything but having both an ideological and commercial agenda.
The courts have long noted that the primary purpose of higher education is to afford a marketplace for the full exchange of ideas. It is through this exchange that students come to see the very real problems in the world and how they might be part of the solution. That is next to impossible when faculty are told to abort discussion of anything that might stimulate or even upset a student, who then might start firing indiscriminately.
While surely we must consider how to keep our campuses safe, arming campus security and students, faculty and staff like they are living in occupied zones is counter to creating any sense of peace or community. Our students deserve better. We deserve better.