Vigilante Campus-Carry Laws: A Racially Troubling Paradox

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With the fall school semester underway, it is remarkable that this is the first time in U.S. history that K-12 schools and colleges have approached potential acts of violence so dissimilarly.

With concealed weapons now permitted on university campuses, such as those in Texas and other states, college students are thrust into a situation in which they are not only subjected to the same kind of rigid security practices as they had been in primary and secondary school, but are now encouraged to prevent and avenge violations on their own. It is plausible that Texas colleges are now emboldening students with concealed firearms for use against any potential offenders because of the racial composition of students; its colleges have a greater proportion of white students than its K-12 schools, and may therefore grant greater responsibility to their students. For this same reason, it is possible that campus-carry laws will expand to other states.

From kindergarten through high school graduation, students are exposed to school security and disciplinary policies that prioritize hierarchical authority, obedience to security personnel, and punitive consequences for rule violations, all with the presumed intention of reducing school misbehavior and violence. Even though research shows that the expansion of rigid and costly methods for controlling students' actions in public elementary and secondary schools -- including metal detectors, surveillance cameras, locker searches, drug-sniffing dogs, and the employment of armed school police -- not only produces a range of negative consequences for students and schools, it also fails to reduce delinquency and violence.

What's more, the detrimental effects of punitive school security typically play out in vastly disparate ways with regard to race and ethnicity. Research demonstrates that black and Latino students in predominantly minority schools are more frequently and harshly disciplined than their white peers, even for the same behaviors, thereby magnifying inequality and galvanizing "the school-to-prison pipeline."

Most colleges, eager to reduce their own risk of campus violence, have similarly made their conduct policies stiffer for students and have bolstered criminal justice-type security programs by transforming "public safety" departments into full-fledged armed police forces, much as my own university did last month. This model of policing students and operating more like criminal justice institutions than educational ones has become a prominent feature of primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools alike. The cost of these initiatives is steep, as evidenced by both institutional budgets and the human toll engendered by various incidents of police abuse of power and brutality, in K-12 as well as college.

Now the new Texas campus-carry law that allows 21 year-old students with a concealed weapons permit to carry guns on statewide public college campuses, the punitive approach to maintaining order in school is exacerbated by the implicit message to students that they should also feel free to take it upon themselves to use violence if confronted by a threat to safety. And this rule inevitably applies to both real and imagined threats, and precludes due process for those who are perceived as threatening. If someone produces a gun and wrongfully shoots someone at college who seemed threatening, the determination that a perceived threat was not credible is irrelevant when the "assailant" is dead or wounded. However, this is exactly what might occur with laws like these that encourage vigilante justice.

As with K-12 schools, most public and private American colleges prohibit civilian firearms on campus, a policy that makes these institutions some of the safest in the nation, despite high profile incidents that might make it seem otherwise. Unsurprisingly, in the unlikely case of an act of violence necessitating the use of a gun, an armed student will not have better odds than a campus officer of stopping it, which is one of the arguments of the Texas legislature that passed the campus-carry law. But, the opposite is also true: research shows that the presence of guns increases the likelihood of gun accidents, like the one at Tarleton State University in central Texas on September 14.

Regardless, it seems possible that other schools may follow Texas's lead. An important question, then, is why the philosophy pertaining to school safety would so dramatically change between high school and college, particularly in states like Texas.

While the rationale for maintaining a law-and-order approach to controlling student behavior is rife with problems, research on stereotypes of criminals indicates that racial bias influences which individuals are perceived to be the most threatening; a significant portion of the public stereotypes criminals as black and Latino rather than white -- a circumstance that can disadvantage minorities and privilege whites. Recent national statistics from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that about half of K-12 students are white. But in Texas, white students comprise only 29.5 percent of primary and secondary schools, while white collegians comprise 42.2 percent of campus enrollments -- an increase of over 12 percent.

It would be troubling if Texas's striking campus-carry policy is attributable to this shift in racial composition and perceptions of white students as more likely to avenge attackers than to actually be the attackers. This important matter must be sufficiently addressed before more colleges with similar racial demographics adopt potentially dangerous campus-carry laws.