By Jan Beneš
I don’t always receive emails inviting me to go to an active shooter training, but when I do, I attend it. (Un)fortunately, there are no actual guns or any weapons involved in this kind of training; rather, it is a dry presentation by the campus police at Texas A&M, where I am currently studying, on how to act in case of an active-shooter situation on campus. Rather than being a hands-on practice session on how to neutralize a threat, the seminar involves a brief, yet effective presentation of a triad of strategic principles in case of attack: run, hide, fight. Have an escape route, evacuate regardless of others’ decision to stay behind – that is the run part. Locking yourself in your office, staying out of the shooter’s line of sight, barricading the door, and spreading people around the room are sound hiding strategies. Fighting back, though – that is where the presentation turns into sobering reality. During the Q&A at the end, where educators around me ask how to protect not only themselves, but their students from a potential, but all-too-real threat of an active shooter on campus, the presenter acknowledges that fighting back, and not coming out alive, might be your only option. After all, as one of the Powerpoint slides states: the aim is to prepare both mentally and physically for what might come.
Ever since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 – and subsequent shootings at Northern Illinois University in 2008 and The University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010 – campus police departments across the US have increased preparations and training for active-shooter situations. The campus PD here in College Station organizes regular training sessions with the local PD, the firefighters, the bomb squad, and other units. With one of the largest student populations in the country, the university also has its own emergency notification system called Code Maroon, through which the campus police can warn A&M students through text messages and emails about criminal activity on campus – ranging from stolen bikes and wallets to sexual assault – and other noteworthy dangers in the area such as, um, tornadoes. The university and its PD provides frequent seminars on active shooter situations, self-defense classes, and even general advice on how to behave on campus in order not to get arrested – since we have a dry campus here, no alcohol is allowed, and neither is stealing bikes. But guess what, apparently even professors sometimes steal bikes here.
Starting in August 2016, however, the campus PD has added one more type of seminar to its portfolio: the one on campus carry. Let me explain. In Texas, since 1995, people with a license to carry a concealed handgun could do so in public, including on public university campuses; or rather, per the university website, in a public or private driveway, street, sidewalk, parking lot, or garage on campus. With the passage of Texas Senate Bill 11 in 2015, also known as the Campus Carry Bill, people over the age of 21 with license to carry – estimates say fewer than 2% of student population at A&M – can bring their concealed weapon anywhere on campus, except for areas where it is prohibited by federal law or by university rules. The law also prohibits university presidents from establishing “provisions that generally prohibit or have the effect of generally prohibiting license holders from carrying concealed handguns on campus.” The effect of the law, and its caveat to university presidents, is that there are few places on campus where people cannot carry a handgun: a lab or two, and a temple. Theoretically, campus carry with few restrictions increases the risk of an active shooter situation on campus. Finally, it also means that when you take a test with your peers, some of them may be armed. When I hold office hours, a student can come in armed (I am not allowed to inquire whether the student is armed or not). When there is a department meeting, banquet for fellowship recipients, or a simple study-group meeting somewhere on campus, there may be armed people around you. They must not open carry – that is have their weapon visible – but the handgun can be holstered under, say, a transparent shirt or placed in an open handbag. That still constitutes concealed carry. Let that sink in.
The Lonestar State is only the last in a line of others which allow campus carry: Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Mississippi all instituted campus carry for public universities before 2016. As could be expected, there was backlash in Texas against this law. The A&M PD encourages students, faculty, and staff to report any suspicious or illegal activity regarding campus carry. The department also organized numerous aforementioned seminars in order to dispel any misconceptions about what open carry will mean. Oftentimes, staff and students in attendance learned that campus carry only concerns concealed, not open carry – which usually brought a sigh of relief – and, also, that it will be very hard to prohibit people from carrying their guns almost anywhere on campus – which brought much grunting. The new law also seems to have invigorated interest in active shooter training, hence my attendance (I did hope for some shooting-range practice, though, to be honest). And it brought back memories of the 1966 University of Texas shootings (there is a video of the shootings on YouTube). Back then, Charles Whitman shot 49 people on campus, 19 of which died.
With regard to the 50-year anniversary of the massacre, some people were wary of Whitman’s copycats, while others on UT campus in Austin simply thought that guns do not really belong on university campuses. The result was a wonderfully humorous protest by UT students called “Cocks not Glocks,” during which protesters carried dildos around campus in clear defiance of another Texas law that might shock you: the one that, you know, prohibits students from bringing dildos on to campus. The protest did not only seek to point out the cruel irony of the campus carry law coming into effect on Whitman’s shooting’s anniversary, but also the irony of the Texas state legislature perceiving sex toys on campus to be more dangerous than handguns.
While distributing over 5,000 dildos and wielding signs such as “Cock and Load” was in jest, the reality is that Texas students now have to cope with the fact that there are hundreds of students on their campuses, including in the dormitories, food courts, classrooms, and bathrooms, who carry guns. Indeed, many students are fine with the law – after all, it merely strengthens the coveted 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution. For me, however, it presents a cultural shock, to say the least. While many see their handgun as a deterrent against potential aggression, and as necessary protection, some of my colleagues – women and people of color – now wonder what it will be like when a student unhappy with his/her grade shows up to their office and is armed. They wonder what may happen in the classroom when a heated discussion starts over a controversial topic. The University of Houston, for example, issued a memo to its faculty warning them to think hard about what issues they want to discuss in their courses since they may have to deal with distressed and armed students. Fortunately, Texas A&M has heard these grievances and worries, and seeks to assist the teaching faculty in coping with the new situation.
Personally, I hope I do not have to remember and use any of the advice from the active shooter training in practice. I also understand that campus carry serves to protect the rights of those exercising their constitutional right to bear arms. All in all, though, one thing remains true for me: as of August, I have to get even more mentally and physically ready for an active shooter situation in this land of the armed.
The Re:Views team would like to thank John Anderson for donating his pictures from the “Cocks not Glocks” protests and the Austin Chronicle for granting their permission to use these pictures.