"Gun culture" scholar claims campus carry about stifling dissent, not personal safety

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The debate over campus carry in Arizona has taken a turn for the stupid, thanks to Arizona State University Honors Faculty College fellow Alex Trimble Young. While I’m sure that Young himself is a smart guy, his argument opposing campus carry legislation is anything but.

Young claims that the Republicans pushing to allow lawful gun owners to legally carry their firearms on college and university campuses isn’t really about the right to bear arms or the desire for personal safety. No, according to him, the GOP is hoping that an army of armed conservatives will chill free expression on campus.

SB 1123 embeds a campus carry provision into the section of the Arizona criminal code that criminalizes common nonviolent tactics of student and labor protest on campus, and that suggests the true aim of the bill’s supporters.

For decades, the Republican Party has fought to curtail universities’ role as incubators of (small-d) democratic dissent. Rogers’ bid to legitimize the presence of firearms in seminar rooms and at campus protests is only the latest escalation in that effort.

The legitimization of guns on campus poses a threat not only to the safety of our campus communities, but to the democratic mission of public universities.

That mission was aptly described by Arizona State University president Michael Crow in his 2002 inaugural address, when he called for ASU to be a “social incubator where all are free to speak, and all are free to learn, and all are free to speak and learn together in ways that could not elsewhere be imagined.”

This vision of the university as a space for robust democratic exchange is incompatible with a campus where the relationships within the university community are mediated by the presence of deadly weapons.

In 2020, I taught a seminar at Barrett, The Honors College on U.S. gun culture. My students included AR-15 enthusiasts and those directly impacted by mass shootings. The conversations we had were among the most generative I have ever experienced on the topic, even when they grew heated.

Sanctioning the presence of firearms in the classroom would have a profound chilling effect on such exchanges, a cost of campus carry that we must consider alongside questions of community safety.

I’ve heard variations of this argument in every state where campus carry has been debated, and yet those complaints vanish once the law has gone into effect. There’s still plenty of debate in class and on campus in states like Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Utah, and Oregon. What we haven’t seen is a single instance of some concealed carry holder or legal gun owner becoming so incensed by what they heard in class that they whip out their gun in response, because that’s not how responsible gun owners act.

I’m not surprised by Young’s inherent hostility towards campus carry, given his teachings on U.S. gun culture, which he’s previously described as “a product of the longstanding practices of settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and misogyny.” Given that ideological stance, I’m sure that there were plenty of heated discussions during his seminar, and I certainly hope there was pushback from the “AR-15 enthusiasts” in the classroom.

But I would ask Young a simple question: does he truly believe that the only thing protecting him from the prospect of one of his students confronting him with a deadly weapon is a state law prohibiting the lawful carrying of firearms on campus? Or to put it another way, if a student is so unhinged and unbalanced that their response to criticism or a heated classroom debate would be to pull a gun, why would Young believe that student would follow the law and not bring a gun on campus to begin with?

The fact is that gun owners are the same people on campus as they are when they’re at a grocery store, shopping mall, movie theater, or restaurant. They don’t suddenly become more dangerous or irresponsible when they set foot on university property. And honestly, if Young doesn’t grasp that basic fact about gun owners, he’s got a lot to learn before he should be teaching anyone else about “gun culture,” the Second Amendment, and the 100-million or so Americans currently exercising their right to keep and bear arms.