Opinion Extra

Crisp: How will guns and college classrooms mix?

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I’ve been thinking about how my college classroom will look and feel next fall if some of my students are carrying handguns on their hips.

It’s a possibility. On March 17, the Texas Senate approved a bill that would allow holders of concealed carry licenses to wear their handguns openly.

The next day the Senate approved a bill that would permit license holders to carry guns in dorms, classrooms and other buildings on the campuses of all public colleges and universities in Texas, places that are currently off limits for firearms.

Both bills have good prospects of passing in the Texas House, as well. So, who knows? Maybe by next fall, as I meet my first class of freshmen, 3 or 4 of them might be publicly packing heat. How will that change things?

This isn’t a question just for Texas. Our nation’s gun laws are a confusing collection of inconsistent policies, but in most places, weapons still aren’t allowed in college classrooms or dorms.

But efforts to relax gun laws persist nearly everywhere. The gun-law Holy Grail is the unfettered right to carry just about any gun just about anywhere. That includes the college classroom.

Proponents often argue the case for more guns on the grounds of safety. If you had been at Virginia Tech in 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, wouldn’t you have wanted a weapon to defend yourself?

Probably. But incidents like Virginia Tech aren’t clear arguments that more guns will make campuses safer, which may explain why the chancellor of the University of Texas System, William McRaven, a former Navy SEAL, emphatically opposes the campus carry bill, asserting that it will make UT campuses “less safe.”

I’m not convinced by the safety argument, either. Where do we get the confidence that an untrained 21-year-old will be able, when the bullets start flying, to sort out the shooter from the other shooters who are trying to shoot the shooter? This might explain why 75 percent of the police chiefs who responded to a survey by the Texas Police Chiefs Association oppose open carry.

I suspect that the motivations behind open carry and campus carry initiatives have less to do with safety than with ideology. In fact, the author of the Texas campus carry bill says that his goal “is expanding the freedom of our trustworthy citizens. Freedom is always precious.”

This sentiment reveals less interest in safety than in the assertion of a right that passionate gun-lovers believe — against all evidence — is imperiled. And what better place to establish a beachhead in the fight for that right than in the classrooms of liberal, elite, left-wing colleges and universities?

So, how will my classroom change next fall if some percentage of my students is openly carrying guns?

More is at stake in a college classroom than one imagines. It’s often a place where students encounter ideas that make them uncomfortable. Sometimes the tensions that result contribute to their learning. Eventually, a teacher will assign grades that manifest judgments about students’ capacities that will have impacts on their lives at least as significant as those that occur in, say, small claims court, a place where guns are not allowed. Questions arise:

Will the subliminal message in every classroom be that we live in a world so dangerous that we have to be armed? Are we affirming the preeminence of force over ideas?

Will some young gun-carrying dude — they'll nearly all be males — be distracted by the fantasies of power that a gun bestows? Will he assume that his ideas are more valid because he imagines that he is protecting the rest of us?

Will unarmed students be reluctant to challenge the ideas of the armed? Will they feel less inclined to express positions that differ from those of students with weapons?

Will some students feel afraid or intimidated in a classroom that includes several strangers with prominently displayed weapons? Will some feel a need to arm themselves? Will I?

Texas appears poised to find out.

Email Mr. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and instructor in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, at jcrisp@delmar.edu.

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