Campus Carry and the public history of the gun debate
17 October 2017 – Adina Langer
In July of this year, Georgia became the tenth state to prohibit public colleges and universities from banning concealed weapons on campus for permit holders. The controversy over campus carry legislation is a relatively small part of the national debate over gun rights and gun safety, but the recent Georgia decision is notable in that the governor used historical arguments in his initial rejection of a campus carry bill.
Gun laws for college campuses vary widely throughout the United States, although all fifty states allow citizens who meet specific requirements to carry concealed weapons. The specific places where such weapons may be carried have been debated extensively. Those debates hinge on two seemingly contradictory notions. The notion employed by proponents of campus carry legislation is that allowing civilians to carry guns makes everybody safer. The notion employed by opponents of the legislation is that sensitive places exist in our society where guns are not appropriate in the hands of civilians. In his veto statement for the 2016 version of Georgia’s campus carry legislation, Governor Nathan Deal called college campuses “sanctuaries of learning” and quoted minutes from an 1824 meeting of the board of directors of the fledgling University of Virginia during which Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their fellow directors stated that “No student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or venomous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind. . . ” Deal also referenced a 2008 Supreme Court case in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “From Blackstone through the 19th century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Justice Scalia further states that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on. . .laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places (emphasis mine) such as schools and government buildings. . .”
So, what does it mean for a place to be “sensitive?” The 2016 campus carry bill included exceptions for specific places on campus including athletic events and student housing. Governor Deal noted that for him to reconsider the bill, further exceptions would have to be made including childcare facilities and faculty and staff offices. The compliance with these exceptions, and the addition of a provision banning guns in classrooms where high school students take classes, made it exceedingly difficult for Deal to veto the 2017 version of the bill. Yet, “sensitive” discussions happen every day in classrooms, commons, and cafeterias on campus. What is the value of distinguishing specific locations as being more or less “sensitive” when it comes to the explosive potential of firearms?
On Monday, October 2, 2017, we all witnessed the aftermath of another deadly mass shooting, this time in Las Vegas. The victims were concert-goers, and the perpetrator was a man seemingly without a motive. No citizen with a gun would have been able to reach the man perched thirty-two storeys above his victims. The only security guard who may have tried to stop the shooter was killed an hour before the event transpired. Of the ten deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, two occurred at universities (Virginia Tech, 2007, and University of Texas, 1966) and one occurred at an elementary school (Sandy Hook, 2012). Each, in turn, has triggered a public debate about gun safety and gun control. At the heart of these debates is a larger question about who should have access to deadly force, and when and how such force can keep people safe. This question has been complicated by recent controversies over police shootings that disproportionately affect people of color, many unarmed.
On the specific question of crime and safety on campus, mass shootings have seen precedents that support the notion of colleges and universities as places of heightened tensions. For example, the 1989 shooting of women engineering students at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, and the 1991 shooting of students, professors, and administrators in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Iowa revealed ways in which university environments might lead certain people to violent actions. Were those actions preventable? And what role did access or lack of access to guns play in enabling perpetrators to shoot and victims to be shot? What has changed over the past thirty years that might lead to and/or justify the enactment of campus carry legislation?
As public historians, our job is to uncover difficult histories and to bridge the gap between the past and the present through skilled interpretation. We do “sensitive” work every day. It seems increasingly clear to me that we must figure out how to bring difficult questions to light without allowing our work to be labeled or pigeonholed by one side or the other in an intractable political debate. Establishing and maintaining an effective social contract is challenging. We haven’t figured it out yet. Perhaps, as public historians, we can illuminate the reasoning of the people of the past, and we can encourage the people of the present to clarify their analogies. Perhaps we can help to light the way forward by pointing out the complexity of the past.
~ Adina Langer is a public historian and educator based in Atlanta, Georgia. She has served as the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University since 2015. You can follow her on Twitter @Artiflection and learn more about her at www.artiflection.com. Her views are her own.