Arkansas colleges and universities, for the second time, have unanimously opted out of the law (Act 226), signed by our Governor in March 2013, that would have allowed faculty and staff with CCW permits to carry their concealed weapons on campus.
This represents a major victory, once again, for common sense regarding the bearing of arms on our school campuses in the state of Arkansas.
A bit of history. The law began life on February 1, 2013 as HB 1243, and was written simply to allow faculty and staff who held CCW permits to carry their weapons on campus. The language of the bill had numerous problems, however, and left several important questions unaddressed: how, for example, do we define "faculty" and "staff?" What about GA's? Or visiting assistant professors? Are they faculty? Can they carry? And what about properties owned by universities, but not contiguous or part of the main campus? Can you carry, for example, on research stations in rural areas? And what about primary school campuses or day-care facilities that abut college campuses, where specific laws apply regarding the carrying of weapons within a specified distance of those facilities? What happens when one jurisdiction confronts another?
None of these issues were addressed fully in the bill. And yet, the consensus was that the bill would pass easily through both houses and eventually be signed into law by our governor.
Why? In 2012, and for the first time since 1870, Republicans gained a majority in the Arkansas legislature, and the sound and fury of those falling Democrats invigorated many of our newly elected legislators—a glut of conservative and reactionary legislation was introduced with little attention given to its language and even less intelligence directed toward its long-term implications. Much of it, however, was passed. The gun bill was part of that reactionary initiative.
I started a petition against early drafts of the legislation in January, 2013, even though I was told that passage of the bill was inevitable. The petition grew rapidly. Several other faculty members and students from the Fayetteville campus (where I teach) had also become active and created the group, Arkansans Against Guns on Campus. We mobilized through social media and speaking engagments, and we contacted the national gun-violence prevention groups that generously provided us with their support and advice. It was an ad hoc coalition, but it grew steadily.
Two Facebook pages, the afore-mentioned Arkansans Against Guns on Campus as well as my own page, Gunsense, became clearing houses for information on the bill, and those pages are still very active in raising awareness about gun-violence, both in Arkansas and at the national level as well. My Twitter account, @sidburris, was begun in opposition to this bill, and I'm still very active on that platform, although my focus has broadened from Arkansas to the country as a whole.
As the weeks went by, it became clear that the affected consituency—from students to staff and faculty—in every poll that we saw and in every vote that was taken, formally or informally, stood resolutely against the bill. This was a case of top-down legislation driven by an election-year ideology.
And it wasn't shared by those who would have to live with the law on a daily basis.
But then the unexpected happened.
A clause was inserted near the end of the bill that claimed, in circuitous language, that the only way licensed CCW holders could not carry on our campuses was if the governing boards of our colleges and universities did not vote, essentially, to opt out of the law which, according to this clause, was now possible. In other words, you could carry on campus only if . . .
The governing board of the public university, public college, or public community college does not adopt a policy expressly disallowing the carrying of a concealed handgun by staff members in the buildings or on the grounds of the public university, public college, or public community college and posts notices as described.
This, in essence, was to become the nationally significant "opt-out" clause. To my knowledge, no other states have forced such an option. It was, and is, a qualified victory.
But each campus must remain vigilant. If the governing boards of the various universities and colleges in Arkansas decide not to vote on this issue, or forget to schedule it on their agenda, the default setting is activated: faculty and staff with valid CCW permits are allowed to carry on campus.
But every year, we have an opportunity to revoke this unwanted law, and so far, the choice to do so has been unamimous.
Three important points to make here;
- Our universities' system administrators supported us in our resistance to this law. I also suspect that they and their legislative representatives quietly suggested and won for us this opt-out clause. Perhaps influential board members also had their say. But higher education in Arkansas spoke out against this law with a unified voice.
- The resistance to the bill was a classic grass-roots initiative because it struck the chord of common sense that has long seen the classroom, in this case, the college classroom, as a haven of sorts, the kind of place that is unsuited to firearms. Citizens will often draw a line in the face of such hastily conceived ideas that surface as self-interested legislation. They did so, at least, in this case.
- As we collect more data on gun violence, the wisdom behind the opt-out clause becomes more and more evident. Militarizing our educational culture ill prepares our students to enter a world that needs less agression and defensive thinking and more co-operation, diaogue, and a sense of shared sustainability and interdependence.
Increasingly, the gun lobbies are being successfully resisted with common sense, mobilization, and an explicit dedication to the kind of humane civility that we wish our students to associate with their college experience. Guns have saturated American culture over the course of our history, and every arena in which they appear will require a different strategy to secure their responsible usage.
Within the arena of higher education, Arkansas got the gun-issue right. Thanks to everyone who helped us in achieving that goal.