UT Tower shooting survivor speaks out against new campus carry law in Texas

As a campus carry law comes into effect on the 50th anniversary of the college mass shooting in Austin, a student, a teacher, and a survivor express concern

The University of Texas marked the 50th anniversary of a slaughter that thrust mass shootings into the national consciousness on Monday as a new law allowing students to carry guns in campus buildings came into effect.

The Austin-based universitys students and faculty have been at the vanguard of resistance to the campus carry rule passed by the Republican-dominated Texas legislature last year. In a grim coincidence, the bill went into effect as several hundred people gathered for a memorial ceremony in the shadow of the tower at the heart of the campus from where a sniper, Charles Whitman, embarked on a 96-minute killing spree.

The law permits people over 21 with handgun licenses to carry a concealed handgun in most buildings on campus, including classrooms and, at some universities, dorm rooms.

Areas considered sensitive, such as sports arenas and laboratories with dangerous chemicals, are designated as gun-free zones, as is the UT towers observation deck.

Gregory Fenves, the university president, told reporters at a press conference on Monday that he recognized there is some confusion about implementation, but our message to the entire campus community [has] always been if you see a gun call the police and that has not changed.

Eight states allow the carrying of concealed weapons on higher education campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin. In 23 states, institutions have the right to choose.

Texas law does not apply to private universities, all but one of which have decided to ban campus carry, the Texas Tribune reported.

I hope they get guns off this campus

Claire Wilson James was the first passer-by shot by Whitman from the deck of the tower on 1 August 1966. Then aged 18, she was eight months pregnant and gravely injured. The bullet ripped through her stomach and killed her unborn boy. Then 25-year-old Whitman fatally shot her boyfriend.

I just hope they get guns off this campus and get rid of open carry and let the police have the guns if somebody has to have them, she said after the ceremony.

A 1966 photo of gunman Charles Whitman, then a student at the University of Texas. Photograph: AP
James hopes Americas gun culture will follow the same path as smoking a habit once widespread and viewed as normal but now declining in popularity and often viewed as socially unacceptable and dangerous. I think that pretty soon people will go what? I hope, she said, anticipating a nationwide shift in attitudes.

Texas, though, in common with other conservative-led states, has focused on loosening firearms restrictions in recent years. Proponents of campus carry laws argue that they give a small minority of students who are responsible, trained, gun owners the chance to enhance their personal protection and exercise their second amendment rights, and that there have not been significant problems in states that already have them.

Against the wishes of some police chiefs, including Texas governor Greg Abbott, signed the bill into law in June last year. He also visited a gun store, flanked by National Rifle Association lobbyists, to rubber-stamp a law allowing the licensed open carrying of handguns in most public places. That went into effect in January. Last week, Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, sued the city of Austin in a bid to force it to allow guns inside the city hall.

This was about money, its not about anything else, its about the NRAs money and ability to control every lawmaker or attempt to, James said.

I think rank and file officers wonder how its going to work and how its going to be implemented and how its going to impact campus life, said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which has not taken a formal stance on the issue. Were all watching to see how its implemented, how this plays out.

Concerns on campus

Critics contend that more guns makes life more dangerous, not less, with the potential for accidents, for arguments to suddenly turn lethal, and for an increase in suicides. They also believe that there is a risk of confusion if multiple people are armed in active shooter situations, and a likelihood of false alarms.

Three University of Texas professors last month brought an ongoing lawsuit arguing that they should not be forced to allow guns in classrooms because it would create a chilling effect on their free speech rights since they would be afraid to discuss controversial topics lest an armed student take offense.

I could see that being a hindrance; I mean, definitely just knowing theyre on campus will make it a little different, said Erin Shadwick, a 26-year-old education student, standing near the new granite monument that bears the 17 names of Whitmans victims. More than 30 others were injured.

The campus was quiet on Monday as Austinites reflected on the anniversary and digested the news of a fatal shooting early on Sunday in downtowns bustling entertainment district, less than two miles from the campus.

Protests including student walkouts are planned for 24 August, the first day of classes. Since the law demands that weapons be hidden, it was impossible to tell if anyone was strolling the tree-lined squares and alleys with a Glock or a Smith & Wesson. Being concealed you dont know who has a gun, who doesnt, and that in itself is kind of freaky to me, Shadwick said.

Fenves, the president, said the university will assess whether campus carry is having an impact on recruitment of staff and students. The reality is that people are definitely seeking other places to work, said Ellen Spiro, a film professor and member of the Gun Free UT group. Theres a lot of debating going on within university and faculty about what they can and cannot say regarding guns in classrooms and to me its just a shame that were even having these discussions. Its just wrong to have guns be allowed in a classroom where you cant have your cellphone or eat a hamburger, she said.

Spiro applied for fellowships as a result of the law and is headed to a project in Chile. Whatever numbers may ultimately show about the laws impact on safety and recruitment, she added, the not-so-concrete part is the normalization of guns, and thats not OK because thats whats killing people in this country. We have a huge problem with guns and theyre adding to it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/01/texas-tower-shooting-survivor-speaks-out-campus-carry-laws

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