guns in class

Many Professors Anxious About Legally Armed Students in Their Classrooms

Happy college students holding folders
Photo-Illustration: Photos: Corbis

A professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin very publicly quit earlier this month in response to a new state law that allows students to bring their handguns into all classrooms and offices — including his 500-person introductory economics lectures. The professor, Daniel Hamermesh, has become a symbol for frustrated faculty nervous over the spreading of campus concealed-carry laws. 

In the wake of recent campus shootings — two in two states on October 9 alone — not every professor thinks more guns are better. Especially since Chris Harper-Mercer, the man who killed nine people at Umpqua Community College on October 1, was reportedly angered over being corrected by Professor Lawrence Levine in an “uncomfortable exchange.” Levine was among those killed by Harper-Mercer a few days later.

A new state law, signed by Texas governor Greg Abbott on June 1, allows students and faculty members with a concealed-handgun license to enter campus buildings with a pistol. Texas law already permits concealed-carry on college campuses, but as of August 1, 2016, concealed weapons will be allowed into almost all classrooms and offices as well.

With a huge group of students my perception is that the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law,” Hamermesh, 72, wrote. He announced his resignation in a letter sent to university president Gregory Fenves on October 4, explaining that he would not be fulfilling his contract to teach fall economics classes through 2017 “out of self-protection.”

The campus concealed-carry law, as well as the general “gun culture” of Texas, had always been a worry to Hamermesh, but when 500 students gain the right to bring weapons into his economics lectures, he said he fears the worst.

Having a gun in his or her pocket, not with any plan in mind, just as an impulse, to pull it out and shoot at me,” Hamermesh explained to Daily Intelligencer, “that’s the real worry.”

Hamermesh says it’s not uncommon for some students to act irrationally about grades and schoolwork. “I’ve taught some 20,000 students over the years, and I’ve had enough students come to the office complaining, and some of them get pretty riled up.”

Concealed-weapons laws are being loosened up nationwide. Nineteen U.S. states have banned concealed-carry on campus altogether, and 23 have decided to leave it up to the schools themselves. But Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin are the eight states with provisions allowing handguns to be carried on public postsecondary campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But, clearly, the decisions of state legislatures don’t always reflect the feelings of university faculty members. Roughly 94 percent of faculty members did not favor anyone carrying concealed handguns on college campuses, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Community Health that questioned nearly 800 faculty members in a random sample of 15 state universities. The majority of these faculty members (98 percent) felt that handguns created more risk for students and staff.

In fact, at UT Austin, more than 400 faculty members have signed a petition to “refuse guns in their classrooms.”

If people feel there might be a gun in the classroom, students have said that it makes them feel like they would be much more hesitant to raise controversial issues,” UT history professor and petition organizer Joan Neuberger told Daily Kos. “The classroom is a very special place, and it needs to be a safe place, and that means safe from guns.”

Dr. Chad Kautzer, assistant professor in the philosophy department at University of Colorado at Denver, knows this feeling all too well.

Kautzer, along with other faculty members, led the petition against the university in 2012 to ban concealed weapons from being allowed on state campuses. Despite having support from “a vast majority of faculty” and being unanimously endorsed by the university’s School of Medicine, the petition was unsuccessful in the state House.

We felt like we signed on to this job in this campus community under different conditions than we live with now,” Kautzer told Daily Intelligencer. “The idea that our students would bring guns to our offices and classrooms was never part of the deal when we considered going into this field.”

Kautzer says the growing trend of concealed-carry laws leaves faculty feeling helpless. “There’s a sense of anger, there’s a sense of betrayal, so I think as more and more universities allow concealed-carry, I think you’re going to get more and more resistance.”

Hamermesh acknowledged that it’s fairly easy for him to quit over this since he was already transitioning into retirement. “It’s low-cost to me, although I am giving up some money I would’ve gotten, but for anybody else to do it it’d be really difficult because they’d have careers they’re in the middle of.”

He added he has already heard from one concerned Connecticut mother whose high-school daughter is no longer considering attending UT because she is afraid of the concealed-carry law.

But there isn’t much of an organized network of resistance — at least not one that can rival the gun lobby, Kautzer explains. He simply hopes that faculty will become more aware of the spread of concealed-carry laws and can be prepared to fight if they disagree. Kautzer suggests that Hamermesh’s resignation is a catalyst for other faculty who don’t support concealed-carry at public schools.

I really applaud him,” Kautzer says of Hamermesh. “Those are the kinds of things that inform everyone else around the country that this is coming to your campus soon, so you better get ready.”

The law will make the university less good,” Hamermesh says. “Think of somebody who wants to leave his or her current job, a distinguished professor. They have lots of alternatives. This makes the university less attractive.”

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