For University of Texas at El Paso professor David Smith-Soto, the fight against allowing guns in his classroom began with a quiet act of civil disobedience this summer.
On the same day that Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that will allow license holders to carry concealed handguns on public college campuses in Texas, Smith-Soto hung a small “no guns” sign outside his door. He didn’t care that such a sign could soon be illegal.
“I don’t want those guns in my classroom,” he said.
The sign went largely unnoticed for months. But now, his protest is gaining steam. Inspired by his gesture, more than 160 UT-Austin professors signed a petition in recent days saying they “refuse guns in their classrooms.” Professors at other campuses across the state are considering circulating similar petitions.
In the end, the decision is mostly out of the professors' hands. The law doesn't give them power to make their own rules about guns in their classes. But they say they want to make clear that the fight isn't over. They may have lost in the Legislature, but now they're hoping to regain ground on their campuses before the law goes into effect on Aug. 1, 2016.
Their renewed hope comes from a last-minute change to Senate Bill 11, the campus carry legislation. In a compromise to ensure its passage, lawmakers allowed schools to name some parts of their campuses gun-free zones. Now, those schools have begun deciding where those zones will be before the law goes into effect. In recent months, university presidents at UT-Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas Tech University and many other state schools have formed committees to gather input and develop plans.
There are plenty of campus carry supporters, including students and some faculty. They say guns will allow people to defend themselves on campus, and maybe even stop the next school shooting. But lately, opponents have been more vocal. Steven Goode, chairman of the committee working on UT-Austin's campus carry plans, said his group received more than 2,500 written comments through the university’s website. The overwhelming majority of those opposed guns on campus, he said.
Seeking a Strict Interpretation
On Wednesday night, the committee hosted the first of two public forums. Thirty-eight people spoke; all but seven advocated for strong gun restrictions. Many of those people were members of the group Gun Free UT, which launched a website on Tuesday and was responsible for collecting the 160 faculty signatures. The group is planning an on-campus rally for Thursday.
One of Gun Free UT's top priorities is to keep guns out of classrooms, where the group’s leaders say students and teachers are particularly vulnerable and where heated exchanges are sometimes part of the learning process. Professors and students need to feel safe to preserve their academic freedom, they say.
“We want administrators to interpret the law in the strictest way possible, and keep guns out of as many places as they can,” said Ellen Spiro, a co-chair of the group.
The faculty has been quieter at other campuses, but Gun Free UT hopes to change that. Co-chair Joan Neuberger said she has contacted professors who are interested in organizing at Texas Tech, the University of Houston, Texas State University and numerous other UT System campuses. Roger Landes, a music professor at Texas Tech who opposes the law, said he expects vocal opposition from professors at his school to emerge “in the next few days.”
Still, schools are far from certain to ban guns in classrooms or other places where opponents don’t want them. Goode said UT-Austin and UT System officials have compiled a list of 28 “potential exclusion zones,” but no decisions have been made.
"Very Limited, Reasonable Prohibitions"
And the law specifically says that the gun-free zones can’t have the effect of making it impossible to carry a gun on campus. People on both sides disagree about whether banning guns in classrooms would have that effect. When SB 11 passed, author Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor that his bill only allowed for “very limited, reasonable prohibitions.”
Because of that, even some opponents of the bill might be weary of testing the boundaries. Going too far could prompt lawsuits, or persuade pro-gun lawmakers to try to remove any flexibility from the law.
"I think it's not likely we will satisfy everybody, and everybody on campus will not be the only groups we want to satisfy," said A&M President Michael K. Young at a faculty senate meeting this month, according to The Eagle newspaper in Bryan-College Station.
Either way, many administrators have tried to assuage worries about the law, arguing that life won't be much different on campus no matter what the rules are. Texans need to be 21 or older to get a concealed handgun license; so most undergraduates won’t be eligible. In addition, less than 2 percent of Texans younger than 25 have a license. UT-Austin has predicted that less than 1 percent of its students will be eligible to carry on campus.
"Thus far, from all our contacts [at other states with similar laws], it has turned out not to be an issue," Goode said.
To the law’s supporters, that proves that people shouldn't panic. At Wednesday's UT-Austin forum, a shooting instructor argued that people with concealed handgun licenses are more law-abiding than the general public. A female student said she would feel safer walking to and from campus with a gun, especially because there have been recent assaults near campus. And several people argued that students should be trusted with their right to bear arms.
“If you can’t trust students at UT,” said Andrew Jackson, a junior, “you can’t trust the students who are going to change the world.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. The University of Texas at El Paso was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2012.