Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Empty holsters at SCSU 

This week many campuses are seeing students protesting their inability to carry a concealed weapon while at school. The protests consists of students going about their business while wearing an empty holster (and one that is clearly seen as being empty.) The group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus have organized themselves for a second such protest (the first occurred last October.)
The two purposes of an Empty Holster Protest are:

1. To represent to the public that students, faculty, and guests on college campuses are left defenseless or, metaphorically, with empty holsters.

2. To start a dialogue with students and faculty members who may not know the facts of the issue.
Last Friday, the campus communications office sent out a notice telling us that this was happening here, explaining the protest with the link I used at the top and this:
Participants will be wearing t-shirts and EMPTY holsters and handing out flyers. The national organization sponsoring the protest has made it clear that students are NOT to carry anything inside the holsters. Students will not carry signs or banners and have made a commitment to avoiding any disruptive behavior. Behavior outside the promised parameters may be reported to Public Safety...
I must say that last sentence worried me. I have no recollection of any notice on our campus letting people know to report "behavior outside the promised parameters". Those parameters are determined by the letter that the group is having all the campus chapters use. In short, they can wear the empty holsters and t-shirts (which are a little too expensive, so the students here have said they would eschew them) and can speak to people who ask about the holsters, but they would not approach any groups or hand out literature.

To its credit, the administration issued a statement Monday morning that clarified that the students' speech rights were to be respected, from President Earl Potter under an email titled "Peaceful Protest This Week":
I recognize that this protest comes at a time when our sensitivities to safety on campus have been heightened by recent events. Nevertheless, I need to remind us all that while individuals in a university community may disagree with the opinions expressed by the protesters, we have the responsibility to be tolerant of their views and must not retaliate against advocates for these views. We must remember that these students have the first amendment right to free speech and the right to protest within university guidelines which prohibit disruption or interference with classes or other university business.
The flow of campus email, which over the weekend had faculty and staff looking for ways to stop the protest turned to decrying the students' insistence that they be allowed to advocate for guns, because guns are bad, or that guns are only desired by people who wish to do us harm. (Of course, articles like Arthur Brooks' in last Saturday's WSJ fall on deaf ears. Mitch, by the way, has an excellent commentary on that today.)

Some of the early comments included (direct quotes):

These were before the President's letter, and all were thinking that somehow it could and should be stopped. Afterwards, the comments turned to:
I did not participate much in this discussion, as I realized how little I knew, but one would have to say that if the purpose of an Empty Holster Protest was to start a dialogue, they certainly got that. The question is, what happens after starting it?

Through students I knew on campus I was able to speak with two participants in this protest, Terrance McCloskey and Bill Jacobson. They agreed to meet me and another faculty member interested in First Amendment issues, Kathy Uradnik, in my office. McCloskey identified himself as a licensed firearms instructor, though so far he has taught only one class. Both came wearing empty holsters.
I placed the holster for my Treo alongside theirs; I then put my Treo in Bill's holster. It was a little small for the holster, but it was snug. As you can see from the picture, they are not obvious to anyone not looking closely, and any claim that they would be disruptive to the classroom seems a real stretch to me.

SCCC has advocated that each student group provide notification to the campus they are participating in the event. The SCSU students -- which they reported numbered "around 30" and included "a majority of the Student Government Association body" -- sent notices to Public Safety and to the student organizations group. They received a call about their "proposed" protest from administrative vice president Steve Ludwig, to whom they reported again that the holsters would be empty. They told me Ludwig expressed concern for negative emotional reactions to the holsters, which given the quotes above from faculty would seem well-founded. They also reported that they had a few students participate in the October protest as a test run. One student at that time had grabbed the holster Jacobson was wearing, "to check to see if it was empty." Other than that, there had been no reaction.

I asked if there was more reaction this time. Jacobson said that he had six people talk to him in the last two hours. McCloskey said he had not gotten any reactions today. They had had reported to them that one Public Safety sergeant had told a watch that they should be on the lookout and write up reports if any of the protesters got out of line, and one report was that a faculty member, well known to us, had started to approach them to talk but then backed away. Protesters are instructed not to approach anyone; I asked if they had literature to hand out if they were asked, but McCloskey replied that they had no money to print flyers.

We spent time reviewing other complaints and reactions. It is worth reminding people that the age at which one could get a permit is 21, so that some of the concerns of guns in the hands of "young people whose good judgment is not yet in full blossom" has been contemplated by the law already. We discussed restrictions on less-than-lethal alternatives like TASERs and pepper spray. Students can't carry TASERs either, Jacobson said, and the campus' student handbook extends the gun ban to "any other weapon."

Longtime readers of this blog know I do not own a gun. I haven't fired one since getting my rifle merit badge in Boy Scouts. I tried a handgun at that time, but not since. A couple of years ago Littlest wanted to learn about shooting a rifle, so we sent her to the classes and I went and watched her field class. She was 11. She was excited to try this, but she also was very respectful of a gun that day.

I share the fear many of my colleagues have of a handgun insofar as I am ignorant of their use. My conversation with McCloskey and Jacobson had one very strong impact on me: I was more aware afterwards of how little I know. I have no way of knowing, for example, how much a person trained to carry a concealed weapon would know about protecting the weapon from an attacker, the poise they have in dealing with intruders, the background checks one gets to be sure one is not a loony. I'm hopeful of changing that soon, to take advantage of one of my several invitations to learn how to handle and use a handgun. Not necessarily because I want a permit to conceal and carry -- how would I know if I wanted one? -- but in order to reduce my ignorance.

Which is why I got into this business anyway. Teaching in a university is supposed to put one in the ignorance reduction business. I suggest this as an antidote to the fear that the faculty above expressed: Yes, we should learn about campus safety and what we can do to increase it, but we should also overcome the fear that is borne of our ignorance about guns. We should practice what we teach.

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