Last Saturday, Dec. 12, Austin was weird – even weirder than usual.
There were real guns – handguns, an MP5, and AK-47 and AR-15 rifles – openly carried down the Drag past the University of Texas' West Campus. One participant, in what was billed as an open carry walk, wore a full Army-looking getup; another wore an InfoWars shirt about the "dangers" of fluoride; a UT alum wore a business suit with his MP5 as an accessory; others wore shirts with slogans like "Proud Member of the Terrorist Watch List." There were American flags as well as signs that read "10 Minutes vs. 10 Seconds" (referring to the alleged police response time in the event of a shooting) and "To Conquer a Nation, First Disarm Its Citizens," that latter quote misattributed to Adolf Hitler. Later in the day there was a mock mass shooting, complete with cardboard guns and ketchup (serving as fake blood). And that was the smaller "Life and Liberty Walk to End Gun Free Zones," in which only about a dozen people participated, organized by Murdoch Pizgatti (an alias; his real name is Zach Horton), head of both DontComply.com and Come and Take It Texas. (Notably, the number of police and media seemed to dwarf the number of protesters by at least four-to-one.)
There was more variation among the hundred or so participants opposing the pro-gun demonstrators, but no less entertainment value. Due to a planned "Mass Farting" protest, there was an onslaught of fake flatulence and penises – fart machines, phone apps that made fart noises, whoopee cushions, a wide variety of dildos, and even a bike with a stereo system that played beats made exclusively from a variety of farting noises. One protester dressed up as Santa; UT student Grace Gilker wore a shirt with the words "You're Embarrassing" written on it; others wore their orange "Gun Free UT" shirts. One of the very first non-media, non-gun-nuts to show up was UT student Karthik Raja, who brought along popcorn to watch the entertainment, explaining, "There are three hours until the basketball game." A separate protest, which received less media attention, took place at the United Methodist Church with Rev. John Elford leading prayer.
The open carry walk went as planned. After doing some interviews with the media, the group went down Guadalupe (where they were first met by protesters) before returning via San Antonio Street. Back at the garage, Pizgatti announced that the group was going to take a lunch break before staging their mock shooting at 2:30pm near the West Mall.
Given that most publicity stunts are aimed at achieving the most publicity possible, almost all of the journalists covering the event – including those for the Chronicle – took the group at its word, and took advantage of the break to find a place to charge our phones, grab lunch, and whatnot.
But that's when things got weird (or, to be more accurate, weirder).
Shortly after 2pm, the Life and Liberty Walk posted on their Facebook page: "Live demonstration at the corner of Whitis and 27th Street." Their reasoning? "Because mass shootings are not advertised."
By the time most of the journalists and protesters made it to the scene, the staging had already occurred, leaving nothing to see but ketchup-covered "victims" and chalk outlines of their bodies on the sidewalk. (The chalk was later washed off the sidewalk by Rev. Beth Magill of the nearby Episcopal Student Center.) Those wondering what a mock mass shooting looks like would have to be content with video taken by the group, live-streamed on YouTube and later posted on Facebook.
Seemingly more concerned with promoting his specific organizations rather than supporting the gun rights movement as a whole, Pizgatti didn't mind the press missing the event: "We weren't there for an audience; we were there for a message. We were there to get a nice, clean recording of the video without interruptions."
In the video of the "theatrical performance," as they called it, the "bad guy" actors wore hoodies, bandannas, and Sharpied "thug" tattoos ("because criminals have tattoos," one of the actors explained). One man had cornrows. Asked about the costumes, Pizgatti praised his fellow activists, and claimed "they were responsible for their own costumes," and they "had nothing to do with race, at all. ... Obviously, we're not trying to stereotype." (It's a good thing Pizgatti rejects stereotypes, because if the Chronicle were going to stereotype, we'd say that white men openly carrying guns look a lot more like typical mass shooters than people in hoodies sporting tattoos.) Notably, the "victims" in the mock shooting were wearing fake orange "Gun Free UT" shirts, pretending to scream and cry (when they weren't suppressing their giggles), while they huddled behind a man holding a "Gun Free Zone" sign before being "gunned down."
Waiting at the scene to take questions, Pizgatti was openly carrying a handgun, despite the fact that open carry of handguns will not be legal until January. Citing a 2013 law, Pizgatti claimed that his handgun was "accidentally" exposed, and therefore not illegal – "whoops," he joked.
The organizers said that the switch in locations had been planned all along and was used to emphasize the slow response time of the police and the media during real-life mass shootings, which is their claimed rationale for the need to "ban gun-free zones."
However, the few journalists who were there in time to witness the staging were told a different story – that the switch was much more spur-of-the-moment. "[This wasn't the plan] at the beginning of the week, no," Pizgatti's brother Phoenix Horton told the Daily Beast's Pete Freedman, adding: "But we had audio elements with our demonstration, and if we were being harassed, people wouldn't hear us. This still proves our point. It's still a success overall to start that conversation." The Chronicle asked Pizgatti about the claims on Sunday. While he said they had checked out a few potential spots beforehand, he admitted he would've preferred to have their mock shooting near the West Mall, as originally planned, "but these protesters said that their only goal is to disrupt [our protest]."
While some protesters saw the relocation as an attempt to avoid engagement with people who disagreed, Pizgatti saw his decision as a way to "take the high road. ... By going down there to the West Mall, nothing would've happened except for a nice confrontation for the media to cover, you know, all types of fart noises and phalluses." While the Chronicle remains unsure if openly carrying guns can be considered a "high road" over harmless sex toys and fart sounds, Pizgatti was right that the protesters wanted to disrupt his event. They managed to succeed somewhat: At one point when most people on both sides had left, Pizgatti was interrupted by fart noises and shouts while giving interviews to the media.
The Mass Farting protest was led by Andrew Dobbs, though he made it clear that he doesn't speak on behalf of any organization or any other protesters. Speaking to the large crowd of farters, Dobbs, a gun owner himself, said, "This isn't about guns necessarily. This is about scaring our community." With a mix of passion and amusement, he told the crowd, "I choose to believe that fear is not the solution to the threat of our time. That laughing in the face of fear is a courageous act and toting a gun around everywhere you go, maybe not so much." Why farts of all things? "These people are being assholes, so we spoke the language of assholes," Dobbs explained.
So which side came out on top? It depends on whom you ask.
The Life and Liberty Walk, according to Pizgatti, "went perfect." Matthew Short, another spokesman for DontComply.com and Come and Take It Texas, pointed out that "the fart and dildo crowd was screaming and shaking sex toys." He wrote on Facebook, "Seems to me they were less polite, and more disruptive. Than anything we did. I'm sure the press won't report that. So who was more embarrassing? Screaming kids with sex toys, or the polite group telling the world not to be victims?" (To the rhetorical question, one UT student protester replied simply with "Still you.") Pizgatti told the Chronicle, "In this instance, flatulence and phalluses couldn't stop a mock mass shooting from happening; there's no way that they could stop real bullets."
But other than the people who participated in the mock shooting, almost everyone thought it was an embarrassment for Pizgatti and crew.
Robert Oxford, who's involved with Gun Free UT, said, "I think the real winners are the staff, faculty, and students who came here to win the day." UT student government President Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President Rohit Mandalapu denounced the event on Facebook: "Today a group of armed white boys marched around campus with loaded semiautomatic rifles, cardboard handguns, and ketchup to exercise their constitutional right to apparently act like terrorists." On Twitter, Campus (Dildo) Carry organizer Jessica Jin described it simply as "fucking rude." As one would expect, many Gun Free UT members were furious, and felt "threatened by people who target us in this way," as one wrote on Facebook.
Before the event even took place, it was denounced far and wide. Earlier in the week, upon hearing "disturbing reports about a non-university group's efforts to simulate gun violence against members of the UT community," UT President Gregory Fenves said in a statement, "Such attitudes have no place at UT, and they reinforce my deep concerns about SB 11 and the potential impact that handguns will have on campus." The Graduate Student Assembly Legislative Affairs Committee also released a statement condemning the group.
But perhaps what's most surprising is the fact that even pro-gun activists slammed Pizgatti and his fellow protesters. The College Republicans at Texas, in their statement condemning the event, wrote that "these tactics only fuel anti-gun rhetoric," adding that, "Staging a protest with fake blood and cardboard guns not only impairs our arguments but discounts the work of countless members of the Texas Legislature and gun rights activists who have worked endlessly to pass the first legislation of this kind in Texas."
Wes Lewis, retired Students for Concealed Carry director of public relations, said "these so-called gun rights groups seem to be little more than anarchists cloaking their antics in the legitimacy of the Second Amendment." Similarly, Michael Cargill, a strong supporter of campus carry and the owner of Central Texas Gun Works, called the protest "irresponsible" and "childish." DontComply.com brushed off the wave of criticism by dismissing their detractors as "faint-of-heart" gun supporters.
Of course, it should be noted that Murdoch Pizgatti doesn't work with the more mainstream gun activists. His online radio program, called The Don't Comply Show, is hosted by TalkNetwork.com, founded by Mike Adams, who deals with a variety of crazy ideas, from the "dangers" of fluoride to the "dangers" of "chemtrails" to the "dangers" of vaccines, to denial of the existence of AIDS, to 9/11 trutherism, to the belief that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a "false flag." The Chronicle asked Pizgatti about how he feels about some of the ideas expressed by his associates, but he didn't seem very concerned. "You know, when it comes to the mass shootings and whether or not something is a false flag incident or not is not my focus or concern." Instead, he said, "the concern I have with those incidents is with how the government takes the crisis and turns it into a reason to take away liberties of the people."
Both the mock mass shooting and the mass farting response were announced Wednesday, Dec. 9. The next morning, UT's Campus Carry Policy Working Group released the results of its three-month study, recommending allowing guns in classrooms in accordance with Texas Senate Bill 11, which permits concealed handguns in public university campus buildings beginning on Aug. 1, 2016.
Despite "the overwhelming sentiment on campus that concealed carry should not be permitted in classrooms," the working group concluded that "excluding handguns from classrooms would have the effect of generally prohibiting license holders from carrying handguns and so would violate SB 11." The report has been criticized not only by Gun Free UT, which doesn't want any guns on campus, let alone in classrooms, but also by campus carry supporters, who feel that the group has recommended too many restrictions on campus carry.
To Steve Goode, UT law professor and chair of the working group, the criticisms come as no surprise. "I told President Fenves the day he asked me to do this, and I said to the working group the very first day we met, that it was my expectation, at the end of the day, we would make everyone unhappy," Goode recounted to the Chronicle. "And I think we succeeded."
Indeed, it seems even the working group was unhappy with the outcome: "Every member of the Working Group – including those who are gun owners and license holders – thinks it would be best if guns were not allowed in classrooms. Nevertheless, the Working Group does not recommend that classrooms should be designated a gun-exclusion zone."
Some anti-campus-carry advocates, such as UT professor Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, were hoping that the working group would "challenge the law," especially given their stated opposition to it. So why didn't the group take a stand? "Well, the law was passed," Goode emphasized. "We were asked by President Fenves to come up with recommendations that would both comply with the law and would make the campus as safe as possible – and that's what we did."
The working group and Fenves are unquestionably stuck between a rock and a hard place. The UT campus community is overwhelmingly opposed to the bill – from the student body to the faculty to UT System Chancellor William McRaven. Fenves has "deep concerns about SB 11 and the potential impact that handguns will have on campus." Nevertheless, "his job is to implement the law. In that sense, there's no opinion about that," UT spokesman J.B. Bird told the Chronicle.
The 19-member working group met weekly, hosted two public hearings attended by 400 people, and reviewed over 3,300 online responses. Of those, "a very substantial majority," the group wrote, "expressed opposition to or serious misgivings about SB 11 and implementation of campus carry."
Mandalapu told the Chronicle, "As much as I would have liked to see all of campus being gun-free, I also understand that the Legislature does have some jurisdiction over the university." At this point, Mandalapu said, "It's just wanting to implement it as safely as possible and making sure police and faculty/staff are as trained as possible. Hopefully some knight in shining armor can come along and challenge the law, but seeing as we are in Texas that doesn't seem all that likely."
While the bill does allow public university presidents to establish "reasonable" gun-free zones, as long as guns aren't "generally" prohibited, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, the bill's author, has made it clear that banning guns in classrooms would not properly carry out the "legislative intent," according to the Texas Tribune. As UT noted in a press release, "because attending class is central to most students' daily lives, the Working Group said that barring handguns in classrooms would have the effect of generally prohibiting students from carrying them."
However, the anti-campus carry movement isn't convinced. The Graduate Student Assembly's Legislative Affairs Committee wrote, "We believe the policy tools are available under SB 11 to ensure gun-free classrooms while still not having the effect of generally prohibiting guns on campus." And Gun Free UT's response was clear: "We categorically reject the recommendation that guns should be allowed in classrooms. ... The purpose of the university is education and the creation of new knowledge. Allowing guns in the classroom undermines that purpose by chilling free speech and infringing on academic freedom. The report has utterly failed to recommend policies that will protect these treasured traditions. We will defend our first amendment rights by every legal means possible." Even back in October, multiple professors were considering legal challenges to the bill, but at this point, the details aren't clear. Max Snodderly of Gun Free UT said, "Our legal planning depends on what actions Fenves and the Regents take. The situation is still undefined, and we hope that more positive outcomes are still possible."
Notably, the report did debunk a few claims that anti-campus carry advocates have been making. It concluded that there's "little evidence of campus violence that can be directly linked to campus carry, and none that involves an intentional shooting." Addressing other concerns, the report noted: "We found that the evidence does not support the claim that a causal link exists between campus carry and an increased rate of sexual assault. We found no evidence that campus carry has caused an increase in suicide rates on campuses in other states."
Of course, campus carry advocates aren't ecstatic about the report, either. While noting that the report featured "some of the finest research on the subject of licensed concealed carry on college campuses," Students for Concealed Carry wrote that the report offers "two of the most poorly conceived recommendations concerning the same." SCC's first concern is the recommendation that "a license holder who carries a semiautomatic handgun on campus must carry it without a chambered round of ammunition," which, SCC argued, "flies in the face of the accepted best practices taught by every shooting school, police academy, and military branch in America." This requirement of "having an empty chamber," according to SCC, "can essentially render the defender's handgun useless." In contrast to that recommendation, SCC said, "Texas universities should enact policies designed to help license holders perform to the peak of their abilities, not policies that turn even the most experienced shooters into neophytes." The College Republicans at Texas wrote that they "generally support the recommendations," but that the semiautomatic handgun recommendation "contradicts a well accepted best practice for concealed carry."
Those two groups share a second concern: The report recommends allowing university employees with single-occupant offices to determine whether to allow guns in their offices, adding that "An office occupant who chooses to exercise this discretion must provide oral notice that the concealed carry of a handgun in the occupant's office is prohibited." The College Republicans called the recommendation "ambiguous." SCC elaborated, saying that letting professors prohibit guns in their offices would defeat the whole purpose of concealed carry, essentially requiring "any student with a concealed handgun license in the uncomfortable position of potentially having to inform a professor – a professor who, by declaring his or her office 'gun-free,' has publicly announced his or her opposition to campus carry – that the student regularly carries a gun to class." Because many members of the campus community often need to enter "one or more private offices multiple times each day," the group wrote, that recommendation "renders many faculty, staff, and students unable to carry a concealed handgun on campus at all."
In fact, those two recommendations, SCC claimed, "are not only bad" but also "discriminatory" and "dangerous." They concluded with an appeal to Fenves: "If UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves wishes to act responsibly, he will reject these two recommendations. If he does not, the policies will almost certainly face legal challenges ... likely to succeed and likely to cost the university significant time and money."
So now what? After considering the working group's recommendations, Fenves will draft a plan, which he hopes to complete "in the near future." That plan, along with plans from the other UT System campus presidents, will go to the UT System and the Legislature, likely by "early next year." The UT System regents can then amend or reject the plan with a two-thirds vote. In the end, though, Bird said, "the only completely firm date in the process is August 1, which is when the law goes into effect."
See austinchronicle.com/daily/news for more coverage and photos from the protests.
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