One of the enduring consequences of living in extraordinary times is that so often we are compelled to a consideration of evident and emerging challenges within the context of our professed principles and values. Today we live in extraordinary times.
A core principle of higher education in a free society is the belief, expectation, and insistence that education will take place in an environment that is conducive to the open discussion and debate of competing, even controversial ideas and perspectives. Impediments to the establishment of such an environment threatens the very authenticity, integrity, and legitimacy of the educational process itself.
Today, incidents of mass murder in a variety of settings ― including educational institutions ― by both common criminals and others claiming affiliation with terrorist organizations have provoked some eight state legislatures to pass and implement what are termed “campus concealed carry laws.” These laws for the most part permit students, faculty, staff, and in some cases even campus visitors to carry concealed fire arms into classrooms, locker rooms and other athletic facilities, and institutional offices (with some exceptions). Among the colleges and universities now subject to “campus concealed carry laws” is the University of Texas at Austin. Thousands at the university – administrators, faculty, staff, and students – neither wanted nor have welcomed this concealed carry gun law, and many among them have undertaken various efforts and actions in protest of its implementation within the U of Texas campus community. I support and stand with those waging these protests.
As a sociologist, a college teacher for more than 50 years, and a civil rights activist for the last 60 years, I find the campus concealed carry law as implemented at the University of Texas to be objectionable on grounds of educational principle, indefensible on grounds of practical reality, and unmanageable in terms of inevitable unintended consequences. On the basis of educational principle alone, campus concealed carry is an insult and affront to the very concept of imperative free and open discourse and debate. The very fact of guns in the class room and on campus inevitably has a “chilling effect” upon the higher education process. As a practical reality, guns within easy reach by college-aged young people, often living under personal and academic pressures, inevitably will give rise to greater problems of individual suicide, homicide, and accidental death and wounding than to any resolution of the theoretical possibility (not probability) of a mass murder shooter on campus. The homicides, suicides, and gunfire injuries that occur in and within the vicinity of campus communities most likely ― as in society more generally ― will for the most part continue to occur behind closed doors, the results of personal issues, and relationships and even medical conditions such as depression, where an armed community has neither the awareness nor the opportunity to intercede.
“My decision was an exceedingly difficult one, but silence is evil’s greatest and most consistently dependable ally.”
Furthermore, “first responders,” in each of the eight states with campus concealed carry laws, have expressed great concern over the prospect of confronting an armed student population in the event of a campus shooting incident and having to sort out the “bad guy” shooter from the “good guy” shooters. And then there is the potential tragedy inherent in a situation where police are called upon to respond to the traditional campus “loud noise complaint” or fight where there is the volatile mix of alcohol, guns, and young people. After all, what could possibly go wrong here, especially if Black students are involved?
The potential impact of campus concealed carry laws in the athletic arena is particularly problematic. The revenue-producing sports enterprises of Division 1 football and basketball by nature are conducted in pressure-laden environments. Guns in the locker room ― where athletes are frequently in outright combative competitions with each other for playing time and potentially with professional sports opportunities on the line ― constitute a tragedy waiting to happen, especially given the social and cultural backgrounds of so many of the athletes typically involved. And what level of cautiousness is appropriately applied by a coach who must discipline an athlete, or who has to advise an athlete that he has lost his playing position to a competitor, or that his athletic grant-in-aid will not be renewed? Or is the default position in the athletic department to ban guns in the locker room and at other athletic venues, thereby even further isolating and insulating, if not alienating athletes from “normal student life and expectations” ― one result being the de facto vilification, if not criminal portrayal of the athletes involved, a perception that those athletes banned from carrying guns (the majority of whom are likely to be Black in football and basketball) are in effect seen as too dangerous or at best too irresponsible to exercise campus concealed carry rights under the law. Still, be all of this as it may, those institutions competing with the U of Texas for athlete talent will almost certainly use the school’s campus concealed carry law against the U of T.
Parents who have lived with the tragedy of gun violence in their residential communities are not likely to send their sons and daughters to an armed campus if they have a choice. Under these circumstances, campus concealed carry institutions are constantly just one shooting/killing away from all but losing their abilities to recruit athletes competitively at all. Perhaps this is why there is a reluctance on the parts of athletic directors and coaches at colleges and universities covered under campus concealed carry laws to speak out about how they are handling or plan to handle this situation: if they ban guns from athletic venues, they are making a statement also about their athletes; if they allow guns at athletic venues, they are making a statement about the environment in which they and their athlete charges are compelled to function.
And then there is this final wholly unintended outcome: the inevitability of a “campus arms race.” The arms race will start simply enough ― a new roommate shows up with a 9-shot semi- automatic pistol as opposed to the six-shot revolvers of his roomies, who now feel compelled to upgrade to a semi-automatic gun themselves. If the pattern that occurred in our urban centers prevails, those “upgrading” will not trade in or otherwise get rid of their 6-shot revolvers. Rather, each of the new roommates will now have two guns ― and so goes the arms race process, increasing both the volume and fire power of the guns at hand while simultaneously increasing the potential of these guns as factors in homicides, suicides, and accidental discharge tragedies. Today, our urban centers are awash with AK-47s and other semi-automatic and fully automatic guns ― the fruition of an unintended urban arms race that in some instances “outguns” even law enforcement. The inherent dynamic of the campus arms race promises that in due time the campus police will likewise be outgunned ― and probably sooner rather than later.
One of the most treasured and satisfying honors of my academic and activist career occurred when the University of Texas ― a Southern university and formerly a member of the segregated Southwest Conference where, as a scholarship athlete prospect in 1960, I could not even have walked onto the campus unless I was carrying a mop or a rake ― established a University lecture forum in my name. The “Dr. Harry Edwards Lectures on Sport and Society,” inaugurated in 2014 in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of President L.B. Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, was created with the promise of illuminating the role and impact of developments at the interface of sport and society in modern life. I must now inform you that, in the wake of the implementation of the State of Texas “campus concealed carry law” at the University of Texas, I must rescind all association and affiliation with the lecture forum named in my honor. My decision was an exceedingly difficult one, but silence is evil’s greatest and most consistently dependable ally. It is my judgement that the law so egregiously violates educational principle and protocols, is so potentially precipitous of tragedy in the lives of students and others in the campus community, and so injurious to the establishment and maintenance of a proper educational culture and environment both within and beyond the athletic arena that I am compelled to ask that my name be removed from the program.
It is with the deepest and most heartfelt regrets that I take this action, and I wish you and the entire University of Texas community only the very best of luck and outcomes going forward.
Dr. Harry Edwards