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Quiet Unease Marks Campus Carry Debut In Texas

Bob Daemmrich
Texas Tribune
Stephanie Odam of Austin marches in a campus carry protest in Austin in 2015.

On Monday at the University of Texas at Austin, where students studied at shaded outdoor tables and hoisted backpacks to walk to summer school classes, there were few obvious signs that a new state law had taken effect allowing guns in university buildings.

But some students and faculty members said the new law — which made Texas the eighth state in the country to allow campus carry — left them unsettled.

“People don’t really know how to talk about it,” said senior Cecilia Gomez, who said her English class discussed campus carry on Monday. “There’s this helplessness” about not being able to change the law, she added, and students are “uneasy and uncomfortable.”

Across the state, university administrators said the law’s debut was uneventful. Campuses were quiet because many students were away for the summer.

At UT-Austin, a group called Gun Free UT held a workshop on personal safety, rather than staging an official protest. That, organizers said, was out of respect for a memorial ceremonybeing held on campus on Monday, which was also the 50th anniversary of Charles Whitman’s deadly shooting from the UT Tower.

Lisa Moore, one of three professors who recently sued to block the campus carry law, said the workshop gave attendees a way to “remember that most of the people on this campus are against having guns on campus and to give us a way to deal with the anger and fear many of us are feeling today.”

The law adopted by the state Legislature last year allows people with concealed handgun licenses — Texans typically have to be 21 to get such a license  — to carry guns into university buildings.

Private universities may opt out of the law (all but one have), while public universities have the option of designating gun-free zones.

Universities have been preparing for the law for months, hosting town hall meetings, conducting campus surveys and finalizing rules for where students can carry guns. But there’s still some anxiety about how the law will work.

At UT-Austin, Andrea Gore, a pharmacology professor and chairwoman of the school’s faculty council, said some faculty members intend to designate their private offices as gun-free zones. But she said reminding people who visit not to bring a gun into her office could be cumbersome and awkward.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I do it,” Gore said Monday morning. “I haven’t done it yet. It started today, I’ve been in my office, and nobody’s dropped by so far. But I do plan to use that.”

UT-Austin President Greg Fenves said at press conference Monday that the campus is safe, but that he realized some professors and students have concerns.

“For students, for members of our community, there really should be no change, but we recognize that this is a very emotional time,” Fenves said.

UT-Austin architecture graduate student Antora Haque, 25, said she thought few of her peers would want to carry a gun, but her friends are “a little worried about it” regardless.

“I don’t think there’s much demand, but some people might still carry, so there’s a threat,” she said.

Supporters of the law say it will help improve student safety and could potentially stop a mass shooting. Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, wrote the law and said carrying a handgun on campus is a right afforded under the Second Amendment that needs to be protected.

Christopher Meyer, the assistant vice president for safety and security at Texas A&M University, said he is “expecting a quiet implementation,” a prediction echoed by officials at other campuses.

"Summer semester is always a lot fewer students," said Margarita Venegas, a spokeswoman for the University of North Texas. "We have some summer camps here, so it's a different kind of community right now…It pretty much feels like any other day."

At UT-Austin this fall, Gore said she expects that campus will still, for the most part, look and feel the same as before campus carry.

“What’s going to be different is that little feeling in the back of your brain that it might be different,” she said.

Professors at the university still mostly oppose the law, said Gore, who has heard from hundreds of faculty members about it.

A few dozen people, many of them UT-Austin faculty members, attended the Gun Free UT workshop on Monday afternoon. The group did meditation exercises and talked about how to de-escalate conflicts that might become violent if someone were carrying a gun, according to Elyse Aviña, 22, a UT-Austin senior and the president of Students Against Campus Carry.

Also at UT-Austin on Monday, two women stood topless outside the student union, waving a poster that said: “More boobs — less guns.”

Nearby, UT-Austin senior Catherine Trevino, 22, stood — fully clothed and holding up her own sign decrying guns. She said recent mass shootings, on top of her opposition to campus carry, prompted her to protest.

“I don’t think it’s reflective of what students would want,” she said of the law.


Watch how the UT Tower Shooting unfolded in live time. This video was originally posted in Snapchat as a story.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.