Like many of my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and other public colleges and universities throughout Wisconsin, I am deeply disturbed by the current legislative proposal to allow concealed weapons into campus buildings. The possibility that concealed weapons may soon by legal in the classrooms and campus buildings where I work is frankly terrifying.
Real learning and the pursuit of knowledge can only occur when students and instructors are free to explore new ideas and new approaches to the world without fear, something that becomes impossible with the legal introduction of hidden weapons within the classroom. For a university system that has long held that “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” keeping weapons out of classrooms and other university buildings is imperative. This is why I support a gun-free campus, and I am calling upon not only the students and employees of Wisconsin’s university and technical college systems but all of the citizens across the state to join me in insisting that this legislative proposal be withdrawn.
Proponents of this and similar concealed carry measures across the country often suggest that the introduction of weapons into the classroom will make it a safer place. Certainly, campus security is of utmost importance to everyone, and the rise of on-campus shootings in recent years has made many of us who work at universities increasingly concerned for our safety and that of our students. However, the introduction of additional weapons on campus would do nothing to alleviate my fears or those of my colleagues with whom I have spoken; on the contrary, it would intensify our fears to a level that is unbearable. As Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin has argued:
“…if we really want to think about arming civilians, we need to think about the specific dynamics of a shooting situation. College campuses are crowded places, with a mass of humanity always flowing from one classroom to the next.”
“Place a shooter into that context, and there is chaos. People running and screaming. Loud shots.
Now add to that a few people with handguns pulled hastily from shoulder holsters or backpacks. What exactly are they supposed to shoot at? How do they determine when it’s safe to shoot?”
“Such situations generally don’t bring out people’s best performances. … adding extra guns into a chaotic situation is a recipe for tragedy.”
Indeed, tragic accidents in which well-intentioned witnesses to crime attempt to intervene by discharging their own weapons are becoming a routine feature of our national news. Even more common are reports of tragedies in which holstered weapons have accidentally discharged, a risk that seems likely to increase in university classrooms, where students stand up from tight auditorium seats in a lecture hall, participate in active role-play in a language class, or doze off in the back of the room after a late night.
Those are just some of the accidental terrors I fear, which doesn’t even begin to address the increased possibilities for intentional violence. Every college instructor I know has had at least one exchange with a student that turned unexpectedly heated—a difference of opinion in the classroom, or a discussion of grades in office hours; it is naïve to think that the possibility of an angry student being secretly armed will not have a significant, negative impact on our pedagogical performances. The dynamics of such exchanges would be rendered hopelessly complicated if any bystander, misinterpreting emotion as aggression, could intervene with a weapon—a danger that we know will disproportionately impact students and instructors of color.
Outside of the classroom, the alarming prevalence of sexual assault on campuses across the country is much in the news these days—here at UWM, a fraternity is under investigation for the serial use of date rape drugs at its parties; it is preposterous to suggest that additional clandestine weapons on campus, including in dormitories, will not increase the risks of violence that women in particular face. Furthermore, as UWM Student Association president Mike Sportiello has noted, “The reason the restrictions to concealed-carry laws exist on college campus is not solely to protect students from violence from others;” with more than 1,000 deaths by suicide on college campuses each year, minimizing the presence of guns on campuses offers valuable protection to students and others suffering from acute mental health crisis.
Daniel S. Hamermesh, the Sue Killam Professor Emeritus of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, recently announced his resignation in order to avoid teaching when concealed weapons are permitted in UT classrooms next fall. Those of us earlier in our careers will find it much more difficult to make such a decision, and yet I have spoken to multiple colleagues who have asserted, in no uncertain terms, that they will resign rather than teach in a classroom that is potentially full of hidden weapons.
Wisconsin’s concealed carry law allows public colleges and universities to ban weapons or firearms within their buildings. The University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System have instituted such bans, relying upon the professional experience of their administrators to make informed decisions about the best ways to create safe campus environments.
The University of Wisconsin System President and all University of Wisconsin Chancellors have issued a joint statement opposing to this proposed legislation. Officials within the Wisconsin Technical College System also wish to keep the exemption for public college buildings in place. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department has also urged legislators not to change existing state law. Student body leaders across the state have also spoken against the proposed legislation. In other words, there is overwhelming opposition to this proposed legislation from those most directly impacted by it.
The UWM chapter of the AAUP is committed to policies and practices that promote academic freedom and healthy workplace climates for all of the academic professionals, university staff, and students that come together to allow this institution to foster innovative research, inspiring education, and community engagement. Let us all continue to work together to help make UWM an environment in which all students and staff can feel that they are out of harm’s way. We oppose the introduction of additional deadly weapons into what should be safe oases of learning and inquiry throughout Wisconsin. We must have a gun-free campus.
Kristin E. Pitt is an Associate Professor in the Department of French, Italian, and Comparative Literature at UWM and a member of the UWM AAUP Solidarity and Community Coalition Committee.