Taylor: Leave your guns at the door

I grew up around guns.

My great-grandfather was sheriff of a large and rough mining county back in the late 19th century. He would greet strangers at the train station and take away their guns. The newcomers would argue that they did not feel safe without their guns, and he would respond that he could not keep them safe if people were armed in his town. He would give them back when they left, he assured them.

My grandmother was deputy sheriff, covering for her father when he went drinking with the boys. She maintained his strict policy. “Leave your guns at the door,” this diminutive young woman would say to the big tough guys. And they did.

My father used to take me duck hunting. More important than being a good shot,fhe stressed, was learning to keep the gun locked safely away. So I grew up with guns, but I also grew up with strict rules about how and when to put them away.

That concern for safety is at the heart of the Modern Language Association’s objections to campus carry laws. Most of our 26,000 members teach and study on college campuses. Classrooms are our workplaces — places where the free and open exchange of ideas must be unfettered for learning to thrive. That’s why, as I join MLA members at our annual convention in Austin this week, we want to voice our opposition to Senate Bill 11, the Texas law set to be implemented in August.

In its thoughtful report, the UT Campus Carry Policy Working Group, convened by the University of Texas’ president, Gregory L. Fenves, repeatedly expresses concern that under SB 11 guns might be accidently lost, stolen or misused. UT students vary in age and background. Most are too young to own guns. Many didn’t grow up around them and have never learned to use them. Some have been traumatized by guns. Not only that, but students live and eat and study together in very close quarters. They discuss and debate controversial issues in classrooms, hallways and dorm rooms. Tempers flare. Accidents happen.

As the working group concluded in its report, there is no safe way to carry and store guns on the UT campus.

So given a law that does not address the issue of safety, how can the president of the university and the community responsibly implement it? It’s against the law to ignore it, and it’s hazardous to enact.

Everyone who participated in the Campus Carry Policy Working Group was against having guns in classrooms because they — like tens of thousands of other teachers and students who belong to the MLA or to 28 other scholarly societies across America — believe such laws have a “chilling effect” on learning and discussion. They ultimately agreed, however, to recommend that guns be allowed in UT classrooms because the alternative was worse: “the danger that accompanies the transfer of a handgun to a storage unit.”

SB 11 forces institutions of higher education to value gun owners’ rights over their own mandate to provide a healthy learning environment. “What starts here changes the world,” says UT’s website. And indeed it does. Here we must say what we know to be true: There is no safe way to carry and store guns on campus.

Laws that allow licensed handgun carriers to bring concealed handguns into buildings on campuses have proved to actually increase the likelihood of violence in general. We, as educators, are deeply concerned that the presence of handguns on campus will stifle freedom of speech and academic freedom, creating a climate of intimidation.

College is a transitional space and time of exploration, development and coming into adulthood or professionalism. This is the place where we have always learned to resolve issues without the use of guns. Leave your guns at the door, my grandma would say. I agree. That is why I will attend, and why the MLA supports, the March for Gun-Free Campuses on Friday.

Taylor is second vice president of the Modern Language Association and a professor of performance studies and of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University. MLA is hosting its national conference in Austin Thursday through Sunday.

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