New Research Suggests that Guns on Campus Make Instructors Feel Unsafe
Some states have considered or passed laws that allow students to carry guns on university campuses. These laws are known as campus carry laws, and specific laws vary from state to state. Only 16 states ban concealed carry of guns on university campuses. In about half of U.S. states, college campuses can make their own decisions about whether students can carry guns. As gun violence has surged, gun control advocates have called for limits on gun ownership. In contrast, gun ownership proponents argue that widespread use and access to guns will serve as a deterrent to people who seek to misuse guns. In 2015, Texas passed a concealed campus carry law that allows concealed guns on public college campuses, instructors’ offices, and in classrooms. Some faculty members at the University of Texas challenged the law, but concealed campus carry remains legal in Texas. As more campuses and states consider campus carry laws, it is imperative that citizens and politicians consider how campus carry laws impact university classrooms.
A recent study published in the NCA journal, Communication Education, suggests that campus carry laws alter the relationship between instructors and their students. Hannah E. Jones, a doctoral student at Rutgers University, and Sean M. Horan, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Fairfield University, found that guns altered the perceived power dynamics between teachers and their students at a major university in Texas.
As the law dictates that guns must be concealed on campus, the presence of a gun, or the perceived presence of a gun, might influence classroom communication. To better understand how college teachers thought about concealed campus carry, the authors interviewed teachers about how the potential or perceived presence of guns in classrooms influenced their communication. In analyzing the responses, Jones and Horan found that “campus carry impacted their instructors’ communication in one of three ways: by causing them to reframe, refocus, or resign with their communication.”
When teachers reframed communication around guns, they focused on how they overcame their fear of guns in the classroom or how they viewed the addition of guns in a positive light. Most of the teachers interviewed opposed the Texas campus carry law. Unsurprisingly, these teachers felt that guns were an obstacle to be overcome in relating to their students. For example, one teacher stated, “I don’t want…biases in my mind if I’m looking at students.” This teacher was trying to overcome a fear of guns in the classroom and not let the fear that some students may have guns impact their teaching. In contrast, one teacher who was in favor of campus carry said, “I feel safer knowing that there are people that may be carrying.”
Other teachers refocused their communication by altering their interactions with students or changing their course policies. These teachers attempted to keep the classroom safe for themselves and their students, in part by avoiding controversial topics, such as political issues. Some of the teachers who refocused their communication actively avoided discussing topics that might anger students. Unfortunately, this means that students may not have the opportunity to discuss important topics or gain an understanding of certain course material in depth. One teacher said that course policies were altered to allow late submissions to avoid interactions with students who might get aggressive.
Those teachers who responded with resigned communication felt that guns had, in some cases, irreparably altered their interactions with students. They responded in similar ways to those who refocused, but they felt that they had less power and control over their classrooms. Some participants went as far as to change their interactions with students and their grading practices. Like other teachers, they avoided controversial topics in the classroom. One commented that guns “have a touch of a chilling effect…The kind of the discussion, the quality of the discussion…[It] makes people really nervous.” This teacher observed that guns altered classroom discussion by making both the instructor and the students nervous. Other teachers stated that they had changed grading practices and gave higher grades to students to avoid conflicts. One teacher stated that they “grade inflate[s] constantly” due in part to a fear of guns on campus. Finally, some teachers severely limited or regulated out-of-class interactions with students. Teachers rearranged their offices to create space between themselves and their students or avoided conversations in offices altogether. Some teachers met with students in public places because they felt safer with other individuals present. One teacher even said that they would leave their job if possible.
Jones and Horan argue that lawmakers should consider how guns might impact the quality of higher education when debating campus carry laws. Teachers may avoid discussing important topics, inflate grades, or avoid having office hours in their offices. The results of Jones and Horan’s study suggest that more studies with larger samples are needed to better understand implications of campus carry laws.