I remember a time when discovery of a gun in a building of higher learning would have meant an immediate evacuation of everyone on the premises by the police to protect public safety. That is unfortunately no longer the case. Today, the leadership in Topeka has decided to encourage young people to secretly carry firearms on campus. I am a native Kansan, having grown up in Junction City, attending college at Marymount College in Salina.
It is difficult to adjust my mind to the current policy of handguns covertly being anywhere on campus through the policy of conceal and carry. This is not the Kansas I grew up knowing and loving. The Kansas I grew up in always had a level of moderation. It is in the spirit of that levelheadedness and restraint that I have decided to wear a bulletproof vest while teaching my courses this year at the University of Kansas. My hope is that it serves as a constant reminder of firearms becoming a normalized part of campus life.
One of the main elements to this policy that I find disturbing is the covert and undercover nature of the weapons being on campus. No one can know who has a weapon. Thus in the classroom we don’t know who has a gun. Perhaps no one does, or maybe several people do. We cannot ask and they cannot tell. The policy also indicates that the student with the gun “must have the safety on and have no round in the chamber.” Unfortunately, this is an honor system with no one in authority being able to check the gun carrier to see if they are meeting this regulation. The gun carriers are on their own with the guns. And as long as the instructor, students or others don’t see the weapon, we must trust them with the weapon.
The core of this policy appears to be keeping the gun hidden and unseen. The lawmakers have made the law such that we can easily forget it exists because it is out of sight and thus out of mind. I believe their hope is to lull those who must live and work on campus and within this policy into compliance based on the fact we simply don’t see it function. Guns will be everywhere but always out of view.
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This is where the vest comes in. I hope that wearing it is a constant reminder to all of us that our students could have a gun, and in an emergency this could make a bad situation even worse. I recently co-wrote and produced a film with Spike Lee called “Chi-raq,” about the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago. The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church in Chicago, who has fought against guns and street gangs for years, said that handguns have become part of “America’s wardrobe.” This new Kansas policy tries to make handguns a normal part of everyday campus life: book bag, cellphone, laptop, handgun and ammunition. This is a dangerous and reckless policy.
The moment I decided to wear the vest was during a recent open meeting where we learned how the law will be implemented. At that meeting, I happened to sit next to a fellow professor who is Muslim. She expressed to me her overwhelming fear of this policy. She knew how it will affect free speech in her class and on campus. This policy is an obvious threat to all who employ free speech and will destroy the trust-based interaction between students and instructors. In the end, it threatens to wreck the very fabric of campus life. It is for that reason that I will wear the vest as a safety protest to a policy that is both dangerous and counter to the heroic history and spirit of the University of Kansas.
Kevin Willmott is a a professor of film at the University of Kansas.