Wednesday, February 27, 2013

For the record

The messages of support I have gotten during the past week and a half because of my opposition to SB 182, Sen. Brian Birdwell's bill to legalize concealed carry of handguns on college campuses, have been overwhelming. They have come from colleagues, students, administrators and friends: groups which, of course, are not mutually exclusive. The public reaction, though, has been more equivocal. Letters have appeared in both the Baylor Lariat and the Waco Tribune-Herald opposing the stand my colleague Blake Burleson and I have taken, and the Lariat managed to find a colleague to interview who supports the bill. I have written a letter to the Lariat that I hope will appear tomorrow, so I am going to use this space to clear up a misunderstanding which unfortunately is all too typical of the way this debate is conducted.

In the Lariat's coverage of our delivery of the petition to Sen. Birdwell's office last week, I was quoted as saying that if the bill passes, Baylor, as a private university, could still make it against our policy to bring guns to campus, but that students who violated that policy would no longer be committing a felony. In response, a student wrote the following in a letter that is currently on the Lariat's website:

"Wallace again claims that if concealed carry was legalized in Texas on college campuses, Baylor would still retain the right to deny that freedom being a private university, which is true. He points out that the university would need to produce signage and a 'legal force' to enforce such policies; however, he also states, in the event concealed carry on campuses is legalized, that '[s]omebody who violated that rule would no longer be committing a felony as they are at present.' While I do not deny that instilling some ‘physical force’ would be more effective, clearly Wallace has not taken the time to educate himself on concealed carry laws – Texas Penal Code § 30.06 to be exact. There is already a 'legal force' in place in the form of a sign. It is called a 30.06 (pronounced 'thirty-ought six”') sign. Texas CHL owners are instructed in the proper interpretation of these signs, meaning that to enter any premises that visibly displays this sign while carrying a legal firearm is, in fact, a felony. Wallace’s statement that they would not be committing a felony would be false if Baylor were to place them at all boundaries of the campus."

I checked and easily confirmed that violating a 30.06 sign is, at worst, a misdemeanor trespass and not a felony.  Furthermore, the law requires that 30.06 signs must be displayed in a conspicuous manner clearly visible to the public. I am informed by a knowledgeable third party that the lack of a clear definition of the words "conspicuous" and "clearly visible" opens up a huge legal loophole that makes 30.06 violations extremely difficult to prosecute. So Baylor is actually on even weaker legal ground than I had previously thought. If SB 182 passes, the most serious charge we would be able to bring against someone who brought a concealed handgun to our campus would, as I thought, be misdemeanor trespassing. Even that, though, would be hard to substantiate, especially on a campus as large as Baylor's.

Monday, February 18, 2013

But, doctor...

"Dr. Toothacre, can you understand why some patients would think they need to be prescribed heroin in order to deal with the pain they experience after having a tooth extracted?"

This morning, my Baylor colleague Blake Burleson and I went over to State Senator Brian Birdwell's office in downtown Waco. Senator Birdwell is one of the main sponsors of SB 182, the latest attempt by members of the Texas legislature to make it legal to carry concealed weapons into buildings on college campuses, including classrooms, dormitories and libraries. We were accompanied by a small entourage of interested people, including a reporter for the Baylor Lariat, and were met by reporters from three local TV stations, the Waco Tribune-Herald, and KWBU, the local NPR station. We were carrying a petition signed by 120 faculty and staff members at Baylor, explaining why we think the bill is an extraordinarily bad idea.

"Yes, I can understand that. Having a tooth extracted is a significant trauma to the body. It can hurt."

It was kind of eerie standing with Blake in the lobby of 900 Austin Avenue while flashes went off and three TV cameras were trained on us simultaneously. I felt pretty composed as we dealt with primarily softball questions about our reasons for opposing the bill and about its implications.

"It would be a dentist's job, though, to explain to such a patient why the demand for heroin constitutes an excessive and misguided response to that pain."

After the interview, we took the elevator up to the senator's office, where they clearly weren't expecting us. The staffer there was very polite, but emphasized that the Waco office doesn't handle political issues and that the senator was in Austin with his political staff. She kindly offered to scan the petition and send a .pdf to Austin. She also gave me the name of the senator's chief of staff there and suggested I call him. I did. He hasn't responded.

"What would you do, though, if the patient persisted?"

Going back downstairs, we found the reporters still there, and the Fox News reporter asked for a longer interview. He tried to push Blake and me a bit—as I suspected he would—asking whether we understood why some people really wanted the ability to defend themselves and didn't feel comfortable without it. Again, I think we both handled ourselves well and gave valid, articulate responses.

"I would tell him/her that this was a matter for my professional judgment, and that as a medical professional, I could assure him/her that taking heroin would not be beneficial or helpful, no matter what the short-term benefits in terms of pain avoidance."

The point that we tried to leave him with—and that we will try to impress upon the senator if he deigns to meet with us—is this. As education professionals, we are best suited to know what is beneficial to our students and to the learning experience. Just as we would expect our state senator to consult with local dentists before trying to push through a bill mandating that they prescribe heroin for toothaches, so we would expect him to consult with us before trying to push through a bill allowing students to bring guns into our classrooms. The fact that he didn't feel the need to consult with college professors before introducing this profoundly misguided legislation for the second legislative session in a row is telling. It means that he, and the other senators who are sponsoring this bill, do not respect our professional integrity. They don't think we know what's best for our "patients." It's time we told them otherwise.

"And if he/she ignored that advice, I would still know that I had the full support of my profession in giving it. I would know that I had the law, and common sense, behind me as well."

Shouldn't professors be entitled to that kind of support?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The first salvo

It's that time again. Every two years, like a smoothly oiled machine, gun rights supporters in the Texas legislature reintroduce a bill that would make it legal to carry concealed weapons into college classrooms, dormitories and libraries. This year, it has surfaced in the form of SB 182, which has the sponsorship of my very own state senator, Brian Birdwell.

As readers of this blog know, we managed to stop this juggernaut two years ago, preventing the implementation of what surely ranks as one of the worst ideas in the history of democratic government. We—by which I mean the overwhelming majority of college teachers, administrators, campus police and parents—are determined to stop it again. We wish to stop it for the sake of our children and our students, and of the academic community to which we all belong.

One important step will be to make Sen. Birdwell aware of the depth of opposition his proposal stirs up within the college community. (Based on my conversation with his office staff two years ago, he has no idea.) My colleague Blake Burleson and I have written the following letter, which we plan to deliver to Sen. Birdwell's office in a few weeks with maximum possible publicity. The more signatures we can get the better. So I am including the text of the letter here. If you are connected with a college or university in Sen. Birdwell's district in any of the capacities I mentioned above—teacher, administrator, campus police or parent—please feel free to copy it, sign it, and return it to me. Thanks. Together we can beat this thing—and we must!

Robin Wallace
Box 97408
One Bear Place
Waco, TX 76798

February 13, 2013

Senator Brian Birdwell
1400 Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78701

Dear Senator Birdwell,

We are writing to voice our opposition to the proposed legislation SB 182 that would allow students and other individuals to carry concealed weapons on our college campuses.  While those of us at Baylor University are relieved that this bill would not force private universities to comply, we object to the proposed change that it would no longer be a crime for someone to carry a weapon on our private campus.  Furthermore, as educators we are concerned about the effect this law would have on higher education at all of our public universities in Texas.

Not only are the intended outcomes of this legislation (i.e., a safer campus against acts of violence) highly questionable but the unintended outcomes of this legislation are predictably disruptive and potentially disastrous.  Allowing students to carry deadly weapons into our classrooms will potentially change the way we lecture and facilitate discussions.  It may very well impede the free flow of ideas and exchanges which are essential in the academic enterprise; it may introduce an element into this environment that causes anxiety, tension, concern, and fear.

Allowing students, parents, or others to carry deadly weapons into our administrative offices where decisions are made about the academic status of students (including probation, suspension, expulsion, grade appeals, and graduation), where decisions are made about disciplinary matters (including probation, suspension, and expulsion), where decisions are made about financial matters (including the awarding of scholarships, financial aid probation, and financial aid termination) would, as you can surely imagine, create potential risks to administrators and their staff; this would be somewhat like allowing an individual to carry a loaded gun into a court room.  When transcripts, personal records, and financial aid of students are affected by decisions that we make, you can imagine the high levels of emotion which can be engendered in these situations.

Furthermore, it is no secret that our 17 to 25-year-olds are in transition from youth to young adulthood; they are at various stages of intellectual, emotional, and moral maturity.  Loaded handguns carried by youth can be dangerous anywhere but surely we do not want them in our classrooms, chapels, laboratories, residential halls, recreation centers, sporting events, intramural fields, health clinics, student government meetings, cafeterias, cashier’s office, financial aid office, registrar, record’s office, and many other administrative offices.

We ask you not to gamble with the lives of our students, staff, and faculty at Baylor University and other Texas colleges with this ill-conceived experiment.

Instead, we ask you to support universal background checks as a way to keep our campuses safer.