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Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas

Race and racism stalk gun violence and the legislation to control guns in the history of the United States. Texas is no exception to this rule. In the 1960s the civil rights and radical struggles for racial justice at colleges provoked liberals and conservatives in the Texas Legislature to ban guns on campuses. In Texas, that consensus against civilians carrying guns on campus evaporated in 2015.

In 2015, pro-gun conservatives in the Texas Legislature passed a bill to permit the concealed campus carry of guns on campus. On August 1, 2016, Senate Bill 11, also known as “campus carry” or SB 11 rolls out at Texas universities. “Campus carry” is a radical experiment in privatizing self-protection in the educational space of a public university. For almost fifty years in Texas there has been a long-standing prohibition on civilians carrying guns at educational institutions. That prohibition emerged at the end of the 1960s and existed until the 1990s when pro-gun advocates began a slow drive to roll back campus gun prohibitions that conservatives had once had a hand in shaping.

The legal prohibition on guns carried by civilians at universities in Texas came about as liberals and conservatives agreed that educational institutions needed to be protected from disruption caused by student radicals in the 1960s. On the one hand, liberals banned guns to protect orderly expression on campus, recognizing that armed radical students would bring further disruption to educational institutions. Conservatives, on the other hand, sought to preserve their racist vision of the social and political order. African-American students were now on campuses in Texas — though not in proportion to their population in the state — and as civil rights turned into black power, conservatives feared those students might arm themselves.

In 1955 Texas public universities had begun to desegregate. But in 1956 only 110 African-American students enrolled alongside 18,000 of their white peers at UT Austin. On and off campus there was significant support for desegregation, but also staunch official and unofficial resistance to an integrated university community, especially in the athletics program, housing, and amenities off and on campus. The History Department hired UT Austin’s first black faculty member only in 1969. By 1970 there were still fewer than 300 African American students at UT Austin, a number out of proportion with the state’s 13 percent black population. The glacial pace of change over racial justice at UT Austin, in Texas, and in the nation meant that by the late 1960s the non-violent civil rights struggle buckled to radicals who advocated displaying and using arms to bring about their vision of change.

Two pieces of legislation tell this story about race, the Texas Legislature, and the outlawing of guns on campus. First, in 1967 state representatives unsuccessfully attempted to ban firearms in dormitories. Austin’s lawmakers sought the dorm gun ban because of the police riot that year at Texas Southern University in Houston, one of the state’s historically black colleges. A police officer died when Houston Police Department stormed a dormitory on the campus on May 15 and 16, a killing attributed to the police as they loosed 3,000 rounds of ammunition at the dorm. A legislator introduced the bill less than a week after the events at Texas Southern.

The second piece of gun control legislation outlawed guns at all educational institutions in Texas. In 1969 House Bill 1450 attracted almost thirty sponsors and sped through the House and Senate. The bill arrived at the governor’s desk for signature within only a few weeks of its first house committee hearing. Conservative and liberal representatives and senators, the lieutenant governor and the governor, all agreed that civilians must not carry or display or threaten to carry or display guns on campus. The only exceptions were for police officers and other officials charged with protecting order. When Texas reorganized its penal code in 1973, this campus gun ban was included in the omnibus statute. SB 11 rewrites that part of the penal code now allowing licensed civilians to carry concealed weapons.

The reasons why conservatives and liberals agreed to ban guns in Texas in 1969 are obvious: campus protests throughout the United States. In that struggle students pushed the limits of freedom of expression to disrupt campuses, thereby challenging the racist order of the United States. Examples near and far of armed black student power loomed over Texas lawmakers: in spring 1969 in upstate New York, Cornell University’s Black students took up arms in self-defense from racist white students, showing the nation that armed students could mount a serious challenge to an Ivy League institution. Also in the spring of 1969 but in Austin, the National Council for Students for Democratic Society (SDS) met to plan its ninth annual meeting in Chicago in the summer. University of Texas police surveillance files show police officers feared the presence of armed white and black radicals on campus. In The Rag, Austin’s underground, radical student newspaper in January 1969, illustrator the Bearded Alligator drew white and black hands clutching long firearms. The illustration came with the accompanying declaration: “Year of the Decisive Effort.” The change was clear: guns were now part of students’ repertoire to create change.

The dates of the attempted dorm gun ban, 1967, and the successful total campus gun ban, 1969, are crucial to understanding the values shared by liberals and conservatives in Texas that forged campus gun prohibition in the 1960s. But there’s a missing year in the story of gun bans at universities in Texas. The year, of course, is 1966 when Charles Whitman’s rampage from the UT Tower on August 1, punctured the tranquility of the Forty Acres, ended fourteen lives, and wounded more than thirty, causing immense suffering. The University it seems, sought to try to forget the “Tower Incident” as soon as possible.

But the fact that Charles Whitman carted an arsenal to the top of the Tower in a rampage that lasted just over an hour and a half meant absolutely nothing to the history of the legislation prohibiting guns on campus in Texas. Whether it was because Whitman acted alone, was white, or mentally ill or all of these things, his murderous sniper attack from the Tower caused no changes in the state’s permissive legal regime towards guns on campus. That came later, as I’ve shown, and in response to a social and political struggle challenging the racist order of the United States, not the security threat demonstrated by a mass murderer.

This point must be emphasized: Whitman’s rampage occurred when guns were legal on campus. Since Whitman planned his attack meticulously, even talking over how to defend the Tower with a UT graduate student specializing in Civil War History, he must have known guns were allowed on campus. Even more telling is that the September 1966 Governor’s report on Whitman’s rampage included no recommendations for legislative action to ban guns. Governor Connally’s report, produced by medical experts working for the University of Texas advocated increased mental health services and greater security on the Tower, among other things, but the report did not recommend prohibiting guns on campus. The University did not even close the Tower after the massacre, doing so only after a number of suicides in subsequent years.

So, if not because of Whitman, then what forces did coalesce to prohibit guns on campus? The answer to this question, which emerged from this newly uncovered liberal-conservative consensus in 1967 and 1969 was to protect freedom of speech in an educational setting at a time when a new generation challenged the racist status quo. Those concerns brought the older generation of liberal and conservative lawmakers together to create penalties to prohibit civilians carrying or displaying guns or threatening to display guns on campus.

This history of the origins of the gun prohibition on campuses of educational institutions in Texas demonstrates that the current bi-partisan stalemate over gun control in the United States, and the political predominance of pro-gun politicians in Texas, has not always existed. Instead, it has built steadily over the last forty years as U.S. and state politics have been reinvented around empowering private individuals to carry concealed weapons for, what they say, is their own self defense. Texas politics, then, has not always been pro-gun, not when its politicians wanted to preserve order at educational institutions. And gun massacres, it must be said, have little to no effect on shaping gun control legislation.

Seen from the vantage point of the 1960s, Texas’s current crop of conservative lawmakers who overturned the gun ban on campuses suggest a profound redefinition of the fundamental nature of higher education in the state. In 2015, the outcry over campus carry at the University of Texas at Austin pointed out that concealed carrying of handguns in classrooms would inhibit free speech. How is it possibe to discuss difficult subjects with any candor if you don’t even know if your classmates, or profesor, are armed?

The successful drive to bring guns back to campus in 2015 also suggests that Texas’ contemporary conservatives are not worthy of that name: they have overturned the tradition of an almost fifty-year old gun ban that seems to have worked quite well: since the 1960s there have been no mass murders at educational institutions in Texas. Since conservatives are doctrinally not said to favor change over tradition, one conclusion must be that Texas’s conservatives are no longer conservatives. Not when it comes to gun control on campuses, anyway.

Instead, the conservative controlled Texas legislature in 2015 told students, faculty and staff and Texas’ population that privately-carried guns are no threat to order and speech on campuses, indeed, these considerations are apparently now less important than one individual’s safety. The history of gun violence in public educational spaces in the United States, a history that began at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966 with Whitman’s rampage, and that has built year upon year with tragedy after tragedy in other states, shows us that guns on campus do not augment safety and they don’t promote freedom of speech either. For years, the University failed to talk about Whitman or his victims and it has only recently begun to shape public memory of the massacre. The problem, of course, is that, whatever the history of guns on campus, liberals and conservatives no longer agree that a gun-free campus is actually a campus that is both safe and free.

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Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator who teaches History at El Paso Community College. Criticize his arguments via Twitter @patricktimmons.

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