On Intimidation, Civil Disobedience, Guns and Science

Wikipedia describes a character in an early ‘90s TV show as follows: “Resourceful and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences, MacGyver solves complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects, along with his ever-present Swiss Army knife. He prefers non-violent resolutions and prefers not to handle a gun.” How to be MacGyver in a culture that, by and large, firmly believes that more guns are what one needs when under the threat of guns?

I did not participate in the classroom-carry debate when the law was discussed in the Texas Senate in February and approved in July. I was away on a fellowship. Upon my return in August, I was told classroom carry would be implemented the following year. My first gut reaction was “this is insane!” Then I got scared. I first thought that students would be openly wielding Uzis in my office. Then I was informed by the University President and a Committee of 19 (nineteen), charged with implementing the law, that SB 11(the name of the Texas law) would only allow “licensed” concealed carriers over 21 into buildings, not open carriers. The President and the Commission assured us that concealed carriers would be well trained (4 hours of training handling a gun) and properly deputized by the state: 1% of the total university population, that is, about 500. This turned out to be misleading. In the immediate vicinity of our campus, 5,300 licenses have been issued in the past 5 years. Under Texas reciprocity agreements with 39 other states, 18-year olds from Alabama, with no exam and no training required, can bring their licenses to our campus. Clearly the misleading clarifications did not assuage me.

I decided then to attend a GunFree UT rally and held up a non-guns placard while the pro-concealed carry mob stormed and took over the stage. One of them stood in front of my sign. I witnessed how the police asked him not to protest on the stage, reserved for rally speakers. He was courteously asked to express his first amendment rights down the stage, on the main plaza. He refused and got arrested. I got annoyed. I thought I had witnessed everything I despise: an arrogant bully, whose fundamentalism was not different from that of many armed religious fanatics all over the world. When I went back to my office I heard that in Oregon, on a college campus, 13 kids had been mowed down by one of their peers, one more episode in an endless, recurring ritual of death. I cried, for their parents, for their siblings, for me. I felt personally responsible for it all: bullies, murders, and the passing of SB11.

Early in the morning the next day, I crafted a letter to the entire UT community and began sending the letter, one email at a time. I first sent copies to few members of the faculty of the College of Natural Science, then to colleague historians in Arlington, San Marcos, and College Station, where I had been invited to talk in the past. The letter came from the gut. It was a tirade. There was no logical justification for the presence of guns in MY office and classrooms, I argued. The rate of crime on campus was lower than that in our immediate vicinity. It was absurd to bring guns into dorms and buildings and authorize the use of guns among a population particularly predisposed to depression, drinking, sexual violence, and solving disputes by fist fighting. I pointed out my fear of intimidation and the likely chilling effect of this policy on academic freedom and grading. I asked faculty to join in a Gun-Free UT petition to refuse guns in classrooms. The next few days, with the help of Gun-Free UT volunteers, I collected the emails of some 2000 faculty on campus and sent all the letter (I might have left out 600)

I then got inundated with emails. Most were encouraging and supportive, but a few were angry ones: Stop spamming me with your views! Take me out of your damn list! Learn to use bcc! Stop using your campus email for political causes! Had my parents had guns in the Holocaust! Later, I learned that, without my authorization, my letter got posted on a pro-gun site. Again, I got inundated with emails, a few expressing polite disagreement, but most vile rage. There were, of course, a few crafted to warn me of possible repercussions to my career: we’ll make sure to press criminal charges, for refusing to obey the law, and be fired! These got me scared. After all, the threats came from folks who seem to have political clout.

My reaction was to dig in. I would not be threatened. I then crafted another letter. I had the email lists. My second letter sought to highlight the consequences of the law to academic freedom and my determination to help launch a constitutional challenge on first amendment principles and federal anti-discrimination law.

Then Jessica Jin happened, a UT newly minted BA in English, who with one single post on FB created a political, global phenomenon. This girl-woman realized something most of us did not know: openly carrying dildos on campus is considered a crime whereas carrying concealed guns on campus and openly outside campus is fine. She made obvious an often hidden point in the debate: sexual violence and gun culture are intimately connected. She invited undergraduates to attend her open-dildo-carry rally; a wave of undergraduate support began to pour into her site and so too did the vulgarity. Over the weekend, I went over her site and noticed, besides the vile and sexual violence of the pro-gun mob, that a few concealed carriers made reasonable arguments. While reading their arguments, messages from the pro-gun site, where my letter was leaked, kept on coming into my inbox. One message was by a “fellow Latino Salvadorean,” Rick. The letter recapitulated the same three arguments I had found in Jessica Jin’s site. 1. The crime rate has gone down in the last three decades after licensed gun carrying was introduced across the nation; we have statistics to prove it. 2. Licensed gun carriers are outstanding citizens; we have statistics on crime prove it. 3. Mass shooters target gun-free zones; we have statistics to prove it. I felt I did not have the tools to answer my “fellow Salvadoran.” GunFree UT had not given Rick’s arguments much attention; neither had I. I had been talking pass concealed carriers, who felt insulted by what they thought were aspersions against their character. How dare you call into question my character when I have statistics to prove it? How dare you effete liberal argue that carriers make gun violence worse when there are statistics that demonstrate the opposite?

Suddenly it became clear why there was support for campus carry among students, staff, parents, alumni, and even faculty. I spent three nights of my weekend (I have a 3 year old so it could not do it during the day) going over the three arguments I had been presented. I discovered that there was abundant literature on each one of these claims. The overwhelming scientific consensus proved them wrong. Why hasn’t this literature made much inroads with the public? Why has a considerable number of students and parents bought the arguments of licensed carriers as trustworthy knowledge? Why has the majority of the population in the Southern and the Midwestern states supported legislation allowing their citizens to run around as deputized vigilantes, wielding weapons openly or concealed? To be sure, there are the anecdotes to back their point: the vigilante hero who saves the damsel in distress. But there is also “science” that proves them right.

Law abiding licensed carriers and I share something in common: fear. Fear of crime, mass shootings, and being mugged by bullies. My answers to fear differ radically from those of my “fellow Salvadorean,” who once was mugged and his girlfriend raped. He needs a gun to feel safe and to “protect his girl.” I don’t live in an expensive neighborhood in Austin, but I most likely won’t be raped and mugged by gangs. I can therefore feel his anger. I can even understand why after every mass shooting he has such paradoxical reaction: all we need is more guns to cure the pathologies induced by our gun culture. I am not Rick, however. I do not partake of his need to turn his penis into a gun. And I deplore the propaganda that he has been served as knowledge.

In one weekend, three nights, I found massive scientific evidence that shatters two of the claims licensed carriers adduce to support their case: carriers are not the reason for the drop in crime rates and carriers do nothing to prevent mass shooting. The third claim, that carriers are outstanding citizens and commit less crimes than the average population cannot be disputed because the data has been made legally impossible to collect, due to NRA lobbying. The statistical evidence is also skewed by a culture of law enforcement and local prosecution that allows carriers not to be convicted. All three claims, therefore, are false. It took me one weekend. Why our students do not know any of this? Gun violence is a deadly epidemic in this country. Why hasn’t the University made it mandatory to have gun-violence education in the same way it promotes mandatory education on sexual violence and harassment (in fact the two are statistically related)? Why isn’t gun-violence education mandatory in schools like sex ed?

Tuesday night, after putting my son to sleep, I wrote a third letter, “Galileo and Campus Carry,” addressed to my colleagues, particularly the Deans and Chairs of my university. This one came from the gut as well. It is about science and fear. The university has not fulfilled its moral duty with the citizenship. We have failed to educate the public. We are responsible for the passing of SB11, not only due to our indifference, but also because we ourselves trained most of the legislators and lobbyist who passed the law. What is the reason for our failure to educate, to use our classrooms and our knowledge to help cure this epidemic?

My experience after my first letter open up a world I did not know even existed: many faculty wrote me in fear. Many had in the past experience the rage of the pro-gun mob. Many fear being lynched on-line, mercilessly abused and threatened by the anonymous crowd. Fear. All over.

Fear from losing our jobs. Most faculty cannot engage in civil disobedience. When I wrote and distributed my first letter, I assumed it was within my rights to do so, after all, there was an ongoing debate on campus promoted by the administration itself. The President of our university and even the Chancellor of the University of Texas System, both of whom opposed the law in February, during legislative hearings, encouraged us to engage in a civil discussion of how to implement SB 11. Yet those who wrote warning me of possibly pressing criminal charges knew better. Recently I discovered that Texas statute does make it illegal for university employees to use university property (email, computers, software, and offices) to lobby the legislature or otherwise engage in party “politics.” On the one hand, state law specifies that I should not be using university equipment and email addresses to oppose the law. But, on the other, the university administration has encouraged me to make our views public using university equipment. The commission charged with implementing the law has received more than 3,000 statements sent by university employees from university offices. Most oppose the law, many pledge resistance. Has the administration encouraged us to break the law? The fear of staff and faculty is not unfounded. Set up allegedly to defend the citizenry from government tyranny, the second amendment has created a pro-gun culture of fear and intimidation. Many laws and institutions are designed to crush dissent. Fear. All over.

In my letter, Galileo and Campus Carry, I sought to make evident the tension between institutions that breed fear and intimidation and the overwhelming empirical evidence that undermines the assertion of the licensed carry movement (open or concealed). I gathered the evidence I had collected over the weekend with the help of outstanding, courageous people in GunFree UT. There is as much evidence to back up our critique of concealed carriers as there is for heliocentrism. Yet the university and its institutions are fearful of presenting it openly in class, as a mandatory subject.

There is another culprit in this failure of our public institutions to educate: the press. What is the function of the press in this debate? Last week, I was approached by a journalist with a set of questions on campus carry that I sought to answer. When the piece came out, the journalist limited herself to quoting me, accurately (actually she just put my answer in quotation marks). Then she summarized the arguments of the concealed carriers via an undergraduate with a double major in engineering and computer science. The student’s statements have links to his “data” (statistics of convictions by CHL in Texas). The journalist put the answer of the student also in quotation marks. The student offered the typical answer of licensed carriers: we are outstanding citizens, look the statistics of convictions in Texas! The journalist did nothing but to put the link of the young nerd. She did not offer any help on how to interpret this data. She just quoted everything he and I said, and accepted our every utterance at face value. She left it up for the reader to decide: a view of journalism as court trial. Politics become “truthiness” because the press always treats evidence that should not be controversial as “opinions”: Iraq, global warming, fiscal deficit in recessions, Plan Parenthood, health care, gun control. In all these issues and more, the press assumes that both sides have opinions that need to be voiced. The view of journalism as the staging of boxing matches makes sense only if the point is to secure ratings. It surrenders, however, its social responsibility to steer debate toward informed, knowledgeable consensus on topics that affect lives. The journalist who interviewed me also introduced in her story the warning in my email without a scintilla of self-awareness: “We have a lazy press, subordinated to the market and the political views of the owning class that entertains rather than inform.”

How to be MacGyver in a society in which the institutions that were set up to educate the public (the press and universities) have failed us? How would MacGyver engage the tens of thousands of Ricks on campus whose education was left in the hands of an irresponsible media and a spineless university? How to mobilize faculty and staff who are right to fear the consequence of the law if they were to express civil disobedience?

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra is the Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.