Russell Hebets Aug. 29, 2018

The Debate

In 2015, expanding the application of previous similar laws, the Texas legislature passed a law to allow citizens to take concealed guns into buildings on public college campuses. Two years later several professors from the University of Texas at Austin sued, calling the law unconstitutional. When their case was dismissed they appealed, and now in 2018 the appeal court has spoken: concealed firearms, for those with a license to carry them, remain legal indoors at Texas universities.

No doubt reflecting the public consciousness, a lot of legislation to do with weapons on campus has come out in recent years across the U.S. Most has aimed to relax gun-control statutes. Nine states, including our very own Colorado, now afford the same degree of freedom as Texas to students with concealed-carry permits. Utah has gone further, specifically forbidding public colleges to ban licensees from carrying guns on their premises. Moves in the opposite direction, meanwhile, have mostly failed: in 2014 five states deliberated bills that would have made campus-carry laws more stringent, but none passed.

How the Case Went

The UT Austin professors built their unsuccessful suit in part on the First Amendment. How can the free expression of ideas take place, they argued, when the parties doing the expressing fear lethal violence? Should anyone have to challenge the work or opinions of students possibly carrying guns, or encourage these students to challenge each other? The appeal court reasoned, however, that armed adults can be expected to exercise restraint when upset no less than unarmed adults can; the same social force that keeps college students from beating each other with notebooks every time they get angry in class would surely keep them from using firearms. Students with guns present not a sure threat but one that depends on their judgment, and the court found this insufficient to sustain a First Amendment claim.

Looking Forward

The attempt to have Texas’s new campus-carry statute revoked seems more a protest than an earnest defense of the constitution. After all, as UT Austin’s own website mentions, the state legalized concealed weapons on college campuses twenty years ago; the only difference now is that license-holders can bring their guns into class. So how is it that no one’s First Amendment rights stood in actionable danger before? Allowing concealed weapons on the grounds of a university but not inside its buildings is a half measure, creating neither a useful liberty nor a useful restriction, and the court chose in this case to broaden existing regulations to make them sensible rather than get rid of them altogether. But as for how, or whether, this will affect gun-control laws in Colorado and beyond, only time will tell.

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