Texas on Monday became the eighth US state to allow guns on campuses -- a controversial decision that comes on the 50th anniversary of a deadly sniper rampage at a university.
The law, which was passed last year, requires public universities in Texas to permit concealed weapons in campus buildings, although schools can impose limits on where guns are allowed.
At the University of Texas at Austin, where a mass shooting in 1966 claimed 14 lives, the institution’s president Gregory Fenves said the emotionally charged issue would likely be little noticed on campus.
“We have a very safe campus,” Fenves said, “And I think that will continue.”
Texas joins seven other states which also allow concealed guns on university campuses, including Oregon, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Eighteen states specifically ban the practice.
Critics of the law include three UT Austin professors who have sued, claiming their free speech rights would be violated, because students with guns would create a fearful atmosphere and stifle the open expression of ideas.
In an opinion piece published last week in The Dallas Morning News, Seema Yasmin, who teaches at a public university in Dallas, echoed that theme.
“I’m not scared of guns. I’m scared of this combination: term exam stress, undiagnosed mental illness and the ability to carry guns in university buildings,” Yasmin wrote.
Proponents argue that allowing concealed weapons on campuses makes students and teachers safer, because any potential shooting attacks can be halted more quickly by armed citizens.
Remembering a mass shooting
As the new law went into effect, UT Austin dedicated a new sculpture on its campus grounds for the victims of the 1966 massacre.
The stone block sculpture is etched with the names of all 17 people killed by gunman Charles Whitman: the 14 killed on campus, his mother and wife whom he killed earlier in the day, and one more campus victim who would die of his wounds years later.
Whitman, a former military sharpshooter, climbed the university’s clock tower building and shot for more than 90 minutes before being killed.
“This massacre... occurred before terms like mass shooting,” said Lloyd Doggett, a Texas congressman who 50 years ago was a student at UT Austin. “Now, such gun violence has become all too commonplace.”
Some of the shooting’s survivors attended the ceremony, including Claire Wilson James, who lost her unborn child when she was wounded.
“Let this memorial remain here on campus and in our minds, as a reminder of the power we have each moment to become a community of love and reverence for life,” James said during the ceremony.
Limits of new law
It is unclear what the impact of the Texas law will be.
For one, concealed guns have been allowed on Texas university campuses since 1995. The new law now allows them inside buildings as well.
A person has to be 21 or older to be licensed to carry a gun in the state. That limits the number of college students who would qualify.
And despite fears, university officials say there is little evidence of increased violence.
After the law was passed a year ago, the University of Texas examined 17 other universities where students are allowed to carry guns.
“Most respondents reported that campus carry had not had much direct impact on student life or academic affairs,” said UT’s subsequent report. “We have found little evidence of campus violence that can be directly linked to campus carry, and none that involves an intentional shooting.”
Still, the law could have damaging public relations effects.
Already, two UT Austin professors have parted from the school. A candidate to lead the university’s communications school reportedly withdrew citing the concealed carry law.
Asked whether the school was concerned that students might stay away, Fenves said the institution is monitoring any potential impact.
“At this point, I can’t say it’s had an undue effect on our ability to recruit,” he said.