Texas prof: I’m quitting now that state lets kids carry guns to class

These days, it’s not uncommon for college professors and school teachers to go on strike for better pay and benefits. But some are protesting due to another, growing concern: The threat of gun violence.

Daniel Hamermesh is an economics professor emeritus who has taught at the University of Texas at Austin since 1993. This week, he announced that he would withdraw from his position next fall after the state passed a “campus carry” law, which will allow concealed handguns in classrooms, dorms, and other campus buildings.

“I don’t want to bear the increased risk of facing a student in my office that gets disgruntled and pulls a gun out on me,” he says.

Hamermesh, 72, says he will pursue teaching and academic opportunities at other institutions because his fear of being the target of on-campus gun violence has been “enhanced” with the new law, which goes into effect in August 2016 — the 50th anniversary of a mass shooting at UT Austin that left 14 dead and 31 wounded.

“I worry about the feeling of tension this would engender because somebody might do something, and you’re always going to be on alert,” says Hamermesh. “I don’t need to put up with that. Life is short, I don’t need the money that much, so I’d rather do other things.”

UT Austin currently educates about 51,000 students and boasts a teaching staff of about 3,000. Hamermesh says that the campus carry policy may deter both groups from pursuing educational and academic opportunities at the school, which was founded in 1881.

“Why take even a slight risk with an opportunity at UT when you can go elsewhere?” he says. “That’s going to cost the university.”

Hamermesh isn’t the only member of the University of Texas college system that is against this law. UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, a former Navy admiral, spoke out against the law before it was adopted last spring. And the president of UT Austin, Gregory L. Fenves, is also against the measure.

“Right now, the [UT Austin] president is holding a bunch of forums and has a committee designed to decide what they can limit in terms of the places where you can’t carry guns,” says Hamermesh. “But a general limit saying no guns in offices, I don’t think that’s going to happen, and similarly, no guns in classes, I don’t think that’s going to happen. You can’t do that politically given what the legislation was passed as. I’m sure that President Fenves would like to do more limitations than what is in fact politically feasible.”

Faculty members are concerned that the new campus carry law may have an impact on course curriculum and learning environment, says Hamermesh.

“A lot of people, especially in the Humanities department, are terribly concerned — why express something that might be controversial [and may make] a student really, really upset when there’s an increased of having a student pull a gun on you?” he says. “It makes it a less desirable place for learning and it makes it less of a learning environment.”

Furthermore, Hamermesh argues that professors should be able to set the terms of their classrooms — not lawmakers.

“It impinges upon my freedom to operate my classroom exactly as I want,” he says. “I view my classroom and my office as my castle, and I don’t like the legislature telling me what can go on in my castle.”

While some faculty members and students are “pro-gun,” Hamermesh dismisses those who argue that the campus carry law will empower educators.

“I don’t want to have a gun,” he says. “I don’t want to be involved in shooting at someone who happens to draw first. I’m probably too old to draw fast anyway — my reactions are slow — and having a gun would just make my life worse in so many ways.”

Others in the community have similar feelings. A Takeaway listener named Victoria from Austin called in with this message:

“I’m very much against young men having guns on a college campus. The overwhelming perpetrators of gun violence is young men ages 18 to 30. Putting guns in the hands of immature, emotional, stressed out young men is just a bunch of bad decisions waiting to happen.”

This story was based on an interview for the PRI radio show The Takeaway, which gauges the national conversation.