Dildos on Campus, Gun in the Library: the New York Times and the Texas Gun War

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Two arresting images associated with guns in Texas appeared in The New York Times this week. Both photos recorded firsts that had never before happened at the University of Texas, or, perhaps anywhere on the planet. Both images are part of the Texas Gun War, a battle over the normalization of guns in public life in Texas.

The first of the firsts was the mass brandishing by hundreds of people of dildos on the University’s West Mall. The other unprecedented image: the first known violation of the law allowing for the concealed carry of guns on campus in Texas. Photos of both acts appeared in The New York Times.

Both photographs – a front page photo of dildos on campus, the other an inside-the-print edition of a gun displayed by a student in a library on campus – provide a tense demonstration of an immense cultural battle over guns in public life in Texas.

This clash of potent symbols is a good thing. The flagrant violation of an outdated obscenity law defended only by prudish Texans is welcome, but the blatant violation of the new campus carry gun law demonstrates a quickening in the demands of gun proponents. Their ultimate goal: the open carry of firearms on campuses, and since the Republican-controlled state legislature returns in January 2017 from its two year hiatus, the possibility of open carry is a real possibility, dildo protest notwithstanding.

On August 24, just as classes began at the University of Texas at Austin, Cocks Not Glocks distributed an estimated 5,000 dildos and zip ties to students. The idea? Protest the new campus carry gun law by tying sex toys to their backpacks. The law allows concealed handguns into buildings at state universities. Dildos on display in Texas come with an obscenity charge. Cocks not Glocks decided to fight “absurdity with absurdity,” mocking state law that forced concealed guns into classrooms and other buildings by brandishing sex toys that legally must be concealed, too. Some students juggled theirs, while others playfully fondled the multicolored plastic phalluses. The phalluses provided plenty of news outlets with pictures of politicized sex toys, their handlers proclaiming joy over gun violence.

No sooner had the free speech, anti-gun dildos gone home safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t be booked, the gun lobby managed to land a photo of a gun on campus in the pages of the New York Times. Just days after the dildo protest, reporter Dave Philipps interviewed Huyler Marsh, a graduate student in UT’s accounting department who carries a gun on campus. Philipps also interviewed three other people on campus, a student, a professor, and the University President, all of whom inveighed against the law. Philipps failed to identify that Marsh is an “authorized representative” of, and public contact for, the University of Texas Rifle and Pistol Club. Its webpage lists him as being a member since 2014. Philipps also failed to state whether Marsh was a licensed gun owner.

The Times photographed each person Philipps interviewed. Marsh’s photo was different from the three others each in profile. Marsh appeared with his face turned slightly to the camera, but his back to Tamir Kalifa’s camera. The shot exposed his waistline, with his shirt drawn up over his blue pants, where he revealed a bulky, black pistol. Philipps reported the intentional display of the meant-to-be-concealed firearm, explaining why they were on campus in a library looking at Marsh’s gun. Philipps wrote that “A few of his housemates are so against guns on campus that he did not want to talk about it in his house, and chose the library instead.” The problem at home, said Marsh, is that “We have respectful disagreements, but I try not to bring it up.” So instead of discussing the issue at home, Marsh went to the library to show Philipps his pistol.

Marsh’s lonely voice was that of the “gun proponent,” as Philipps labeled him. Marsh feels like an outcast in the pro-dildo, anti-gun climate. But he does belong to a group of likeminded students that like guns: he’s one of two public representatives of the University of Texas Rifle and Pistol Club. According to their website, the members enjoy shooting guns enough to make the “several miles away from campus” drive to the Lone Star Gun Range in Lockhart. The members compete competitively, they say, and the club tries to fund its members’ ammunition usage. According to the group’s website available via UT’s Dean of Students, the registered student organization has 38 members. The website has links, of course, to the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association. The TSRA considers the campus carry legislation one of its successes in Austin in the 2015 legislative session.

The symbolic power of showing a gun on campus is one of defiance to the new law. What Marsh did on campus with The New York Times reporter and photographer was a crime. Even with all the hullaballoo about campus carry, it is still illegal to display with intention a handgun to another person on a public university in Texas. Unlike the same offense on public property, Section 46.035 of the Texas Penal Code is clear that even if a gun is holstered it is still a crime to intentionally display it on campus. That’s the legal meaning of concealed carry on campus – the firearm must be concealed at all times.

“(a-1) … a license holder commits an offense if the license holder carries a partially or wholly visible handgun, regardless of whether the handgun is holstered, on or about the license holder’s person … and intentionally displays the handgun in plain view of another person:

(1) on the premises of an institution of higher education or private or independent institution of higher education”

So, when Marsh showed off his gun on the fourth floor of a campus library to reporter Dave Philipps and photographer Tamir Kalifa, he committed a class A misdemeanor. A Class A misdemeanor in Texas is not more than 1 year of jail time and a fine of not more than US$4,000.

 

Why would Marsh take the risk of a misdemeanor, sanction or expulsion by the University and possible revocation of his gun license, other than to land a picture of a gun on campus in the New York Times? Online the dildo protest infuriated proponents of campus carry. The Texas gun war, as the embrace of dildos showed, is about fighting a symbol of violence with one of sex. The idea being that sex shouldn’t be taboo but guns should.

The Texas Gun War is also a duel between symbols and it has real consequences. Once guns are accepted symbolically it is not difficult to see how they then spread into daily practice. (Which is, of course, precisely the law’s fear about dildos. Ironies abound.) Other than idiocy, one way to explain Marsh’s defiant act is that he was attempting to open up a symbolic space for the acceptance of guns on campus.

Why is it crucial to denounce the first known violation of SB 11? One might think that the display of a handgun to The New York Times barely warrants mention. But this is a historic moment, meaning a time of intense change around the acceptance of guns and along with that the legal rejection of a past that prohibited guns in educational spaces. The illegality of the intentional display of a firearm on campus in Texas is the last remaining element of the 1969 handgun ban. The 1969 ban stated it was explicitly “prohibited to exhibit or threaten to exhibit firearms” on campuses.

In 1969, as I reported for CounterPunch earlier this summer, the Texas Legislature banned handguns on all educational institutions in Texas. SB 11, passed in 2015, threw out that provision for concealed handgun license holders. However, the new campus carry law retained one important element of the old campus gun prohibition law. The intentional display of a handgun on campus was illegal in 1969 and is still illegal in 2016. That is why it is so important that Marsh’s display of his firearm on campus to The New York Times be denounced as a flagrant violation of the law. If not, it is the first symbolic step in the push to allow open carry throughout Texas public institutions of higher education.

The Texas Legislature begins its new session in January 2017. Gun advocates have vowed to push for even greater access for guns on campus, going so far as open campus carry. By showing off his gun to the New York Times in a campus library, Huyler Marsh’s violation of the law shows that an experienced gun carrier will flaunt the new law. Gun proponents have consistently said that they obey the law. Marsh’s antics demonstrate that is not the case. Less than two months ago it was illegal to enter campus buildings in Texas with a gun. Now it is legal to carry a concealed weapon into a building and, if Huyler Marsh is not charged with a Class A Misdemeanor, it is apparently without legal consequence to break the law by intentionally showing off a weapon on campus to the New York Times.

So what’s the score in the latest battle of the Texas Gun War?

Dildos – 0, Guns – 1.

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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