Concealed Guns Poison Soil of Academic Freedom

By Mark Button, Assistant Professor Political Science

I write to express my support for President Bernie Machen’s leadership in defense of the U’s responsible policy regarding firearms on campus.

As a faculty member here at the U, it is a great comfort to know that this university has a president who is willing to confront a hostile political environment in defense of the basic conditions that make higher learning possible for all students.

The presence of firearms on this campus would create a climate at the U that is fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university; a mission that is only conceivable in an environment of safe, open and honest exchange, not one conducted under the clouds of suspicion, anxiety and fear.

What grounds such fears?

Is this simply the expression of preestablished ideological convictions, a private antipathy to guns, or a recognition of the fact that gun violence is the second leading cause of injury-related death in the United States?

Setting the gloomy statistics aside, such fears are all the more pernicious for creating conditions in which a diffuse and indiscriminate mistrust of one’s peers and colleagues would only rival the frequently misplaced (but rhetorically saleable) fear of random outsider violence.

As an assistant professor in the political science department, I take seriously the university’s commitment to cultivating the talents and skills necessary for citizenship in our democracy.

Part of what this commitment entails is to encourage students to ask questions of themselves in their public capacity as citizens, not merely private questions in their capacity as consumers or clients of government.

This means asking, in terms of this case, not simply whether I have a right to carry a concealed weapon wherever I so choose, but what are the possible public consequences of recognizing no other claims and no other language than the self-referential vocabulary of private rights.

Utahns, like all Americans, are the proud bearers of a panoply of rights that serve as the irrevocable guards to their fundamental liberties as citizens.

But as citizens, these liberties come with a corresponding set of duties to the commonwealth that alone make these freedoms possible.

In this regard, we have an obligation to consider the consequences of insisting upon the observance of a private “right” in the context of the unique public that is constituted within a university community.

This is a public that dedicates itself to some specific, noble ends, none of which can be furthered by poisoning the soil of academic freedom that requires mutual trust, reciprocity, and comity as its essential nutrients.

In a case like this one, we must distinguish between those rights the expression of which are the product of private individual choice and have little or no external-public consequences, and those perceived rights which pose a realistic threat of harm to others.

In the first case, the expression of an individual right may not meet with the public’s assent or favor, but most Americans are accustomed to distinguishing between those things that we allow and tolerate (precisely because this is a diverse country founded on certain basic rights) and those things that we esteem and endorse.

In the second case however, the adoption of an individual right cannot be made without simultaneously endangering the equal liberties of others. And this is precisely where the university stands in relation to the proponents of concealed weapons.

If it is reasonable to assume that the (concealed) presence of guns on a university or college campus would pose a potential threat to the basic liberties of students, to their freedoms of pursuing their own self-development in an atmosphere devoid of fear and anxiety, then the burden of proof for sacrificing the rights of students, faculty and staff at the U does not stand with the president of the university, it stands with the state Legislature and those who would make this baleful exchange.

And if the state Legislature is to persuade the members of this community otherwise, it will need to do more than hide behind their exclusive statutory authority in these matters and reject the cynical ploys of those who, feasting on people’s fears of victimization, suggest that more people carrying lethal weapons around campus will make for a safer learning environment.

When rights come into conflict, as they are in this case, reasonable people will, and often do, disagree. Yet the essential ground upon which most Americans can find agreement is that citizens should be allowed the most expansive freedoms possible so long as and up to the point where those liberties do not jeopardize the same rights of others.

Given the unique setting, requirements and mission of the university, and the contributions to the larger society the preservation of academic freedoms makes possible, we are doubtless on solid terrain in defending these liberties against those that would put them in harm’s way.

Mark Button is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Utah. Send letters to the editor to: [email protected].