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As Universities Consider Campus Carry, Gun-Free Classrooms Seem Unlikely

Texas professors are still fighting to keep their classrooms gun free. But the state's top universities appear to be reaching a consensus that banning guns in classes will soon be illegal.

Stephanie Odam of Austin advocates for a gun-free learning environment during a Modern Language Association-sponsored march on Congress Avenue Jan. 8, 2016.

The thousands of professors who attend the Modern Language Association's annual conventions usually talk literature, linguistics and language. But last week in Austin, many took a break to focus on something outside the norm — guns. 

Hundreds of professors from the group marched down Congress Avenue on Friday waving signs and chanting their opposition to Texas' new campus carry law. "Guns are not a teaching tool," they yelled. "They do not belong in school."

The event gained attention in academia, but the message may not go far in Texas. Universities contemplating how to comply with the law seem to be nearing a consensus that guns have to be allowed in classrooms next year.

The law, which requires colleges to allow people with concealed handgun licenses to carry their weapons at school starting Aug. 1, allows the schools to declare some portions of their campuses gun-free. But so far, classrooms aren't making the list of gun-free places proposed at the state's biggest universities. The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University, Texas State University, the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Arlington are already reviewing draft policies for campus carry, and none of them include bans on guns in classes. 

Those rules are far from final. University presidents will review the drafts this spring and make their own recommendations. And official policies must be approved by the colleges' boards of regents. But the similarity of the recommendations suggest that classroom gun bans are long shots at most major universities. 

"There are a lot of areas where people would like guns excluded, but we don't have reasonable justifications for excluding them," Marcilynn Burke, chairwoman of a task force reviewing possible rules at the University of Houston, told the UH System Board of Regents at a recent meeting. UH and Texas A&M University are still preparing their proposed rules. 

The first round of recommendations is coming from campus task forces made up of students, faculty and other campus leaders. Those groups were given the job of gathering campus input and consulting with legal experts. They were then asked to propose rules to the presidents, who eventually will issue their own plans for board of regents approval. 

Much of the input has been gathered at emotional public forums. Gun rights advocates said they feel safer with guns and have a constitutional right to carry them at government-run institutions. Opponents said the law will make campuses dangerous and hurt the academic environment. 

"In order to learn, you need to be in a safe space," said Anne Stewart, a graduate student of English at UT-Austin, at Friday's rally. 

But some task force members have said that banning guns in classrooms is probably not lawful.

That idea was most clear in the UT-Austin task force’s recommendations. At the end of their report, members tacked on a 1,200-word explanation for why they thought a classroom ban went too far. 

"Every member of the Working Group — including those who are gun owners and license holders — thinks it would be best if guns were not allowed in classrooms,” the report said. “Nevertheless ... we cannot recommend that classrooms should be designated a gun-exclusion zone.”

The law says gun-free zones can't make it practically impossible to carry a gun at all, the report said. Since going to class is the main reason many people come to campus, a classroom ban would have that effect, the task force concluded.

The group considered setting up gun storage areas for students to use while in class but decided that was too dangerous. The areas would need tight security, the report said. And the transfer of guns into storage raises a risk of accidental firing or other mishandling. 

“It is all too easy to imagine that there will be days when a license holder is running a bit late and thus will be less cautious in storing the handgun,” the report said. 

State officials have reached similar conclusions. In a nonbinding opinion issued last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said banning guns in classrooms would be illegal. Meanwhile, the author of the campus carry bill, State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, has said there would be "consequences" if schools tried such a ban.

That talk is frustrating to opponents of guns on campuses. And participants in Friday's rally made another plea. After their march down Congress Avenue, members piled up books in front of the Capitol that have been known to spark heated classroom debates. Those kinds of discussions may be impossible if students think their classmates might have guns, the professors said.

But organizers of the event acknowledged that their fight faces long odds. Lisa Moore, an English professor at UT-Austin, said she'd like to see her campus leaders take a stand, even if they know it is doomed to fail in the courts or be shot down by the Legislature. If they don't, faculty members will continue to voice their frustration, she said. 

“We are participating in a long American tradition of dissent from unjust laws,” Moore said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, the University of Houston, the Texas State University System and the University of North Texas are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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