Campus Carry, Coming to a Community College Near You

Take your guns to school

Protesters at UT in 2016 (Photo by John Anderson)

On Tuesday, Aug. 1, Texas' campus carry law goes into effect for community colleges around the state. This comes exactly one year after four-year institutions were required to allow licensed individuals to carry concealed weapons.

Senate Bill 11, which passed the Legislature in 2015, included a provision giving community colleges an extra year to draft and implement their new policies. Although Austin Community College and its police chief both opposed the law when it was first proposed, the focus quickly shifted to the logistics of implementation – an intimidating task for any institution, let alone one with nearly a dozen campuses and other facilities throughout the greater metro area.

Chris Cervini, director of the college's Public Affairs office, said ACC's implementation process was greatly influenced by the path laid out by the state's four-year institutions. Cervini served as co-chair of the Campus Carry Implementation Task Force, a group of stakeholders appointed to oversee the process. The group had conversations with the University of Texas, Texas State, and Texas A&M, among others, as they put the new policy together. "It was a great opportunity to see what the four-year institutions have done," he said, "see the pitfalls or challenges that they had, and to implement with that kind of in our back pocket."

Under the new policy, License to Carry holders can practice concealed carry on ACC campuses. LTC holders must have passed a certified arms training class, written exam, proficiency demonstration, and background checks. ACC officials stress that the new law allows concealed carry only; open carry on campuses remains a violation of ACC policy (and possibly state law). Cervini said that the misconception many students had that open carry would become the law of the land proved the biggest hurdle. "And to be honest," he said, "it's going to continue to be a misconception."

At the beginning of class each semester, professors will play an educational video and go through the new rules. But the last year has served as an extended tutorial that Cervini said will continue even as the policy ages. "At some point, we're going to be into this thing three or four years, and somebody's going to show up and not know" the rules, he said. "It's just the nature of disseminating the information."

ACC held forums this spring to educate and take feedback from the community. In his opening presentation, Cervini noted that SB 11 was written specifically to bar colleges from using exclusion zones – areas under the law where guns are banned for safety purposes – if they're created solely to skirt the language of the new law. Any designated exclusion zone must now be put into place for a specific reason. The task force went through a painstaking process of going room to room to discuss whether or not it should be designated as an exclusion area. These now include testing centers (because some testing companies require their exams be done in gun-free zones), polling places, and science labs, since some chemicals and other substances found in them can be flammable. There's also the matter of ACC's early college high school, which is located in Round Rock and owned in part by RRISD; that part of the property will be an exclusion zone. Those areas will be marked by clear signs at the entrance. ACC doesn't have any dormitories, which made things a bit easier on the task force.

ACC Police Chief Lynn Dixon (Courtesy of Austin Community College District)

Much of the responsibility for carrying out the new policy will fall on the license holders. ACC is relying on them to know the rules and abide by them. At a forum this spring, ACC Police Chief Lynn Dixon told the audience that license holders should use their best judgment when considering whether to carry on a specific day. If they are performing a strenuous activity, for example, or heading to an exclusion zone, they can leave their guns locked in their vehicles. LTC holders must also keep their guns in a holster that covers the trigger, and, especially if the gun is stored in a backpack, keep it "on or about" their person. That's to minimize what the task force found to be the greatest risk of the new law: accidental discharges. Cervini said the task force is "working very hard to make sure that the license to carry holders work to minimize that risk at every turn."

The school system surveyed its students, faculty, and staff and found that 55% opposed the law and only 35% approved. That ratio was evident during the spring forums, where several faculty members expressed hopes that their classrooms could be exempted. Earlier this month, federal judge Lee Yeakel shut the book on a lawsuit filed by a trio of UT professors who sought to overturn SB 11, saying that the professors did not present concrete evidence to substantiate their fears. (The professors appealed Yeakel's ruling Monday.)

On April 18 at the Riverside campus session, history professor and ACC Full-Time Faculty Senate President Suzanne Wilson Summers issued a sobering warning. "If somebody gets hurt, I don't want my voice to have been silent," she said. "And I think we have an obligation to the communities we serve and our students to stand up and say no to this."

"We're not for it either," Dixon responded. "We're just mandated to do it. We don't want it on campus, but it is the law. It's going to happen, and we're trying to make it as painless as possible." He advised that all students take a Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events training course, and suggested that anybody who encounters an active shooter "lock the door, turn off the lights, move away from the door, and wait for the police to come."

Mitchell O'Boyle is an ACC student and student government member who was invited to take part in the task force process, and also plans to make use of the new policy in the future. In his view, ACC succeeded in its quest to implement the process in as technocratic a way as possible. "I would say it was completely democratic," he said. "The school did a great job reaching out to get input from all levels of participation."

Cervini and Dixon both foresee a smooth rollout of the policy. Cervini acknowledged that the community college demographic means a higher percentage of students are eligible to take advantage of the policy. "Our population tends to be a little older," he said. "So it would be more likely that you would have a person with a license to carry in our population. ... That said, it still would be a small percentage of people at any given time on any given day who would be carrying on a campus."

Dixon agreed. "I think Tuesday is going to be a normal day," he said. "I don't anticipate any problems."

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campus carry, Richard Rhodes, Chris Cervini, Lynn Dixon, Mitchell O'Boyle

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