A Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin has declared guns aren’t allowed in his classroom, despite a soon-to-be-enacted state law that would welcome them in.
Dr. Steven Weinberg—a near-God in the science world for, among other things, his contribution in the development of electroweak theory—made known his intention to buck SB-11, commonly known as the campus carry bill, during a faculty council meeting on Monday where he stood up in opposition of the university working group’s recommendations that classrooms not be gun-free zones.
Texas’ campus carry law was passed by a Republican legislature last May and goes into effect this fall, making the state one of nine that allows licensed concealed carriers to bring guns on campus, according to a report by the Education Commission of the States and NASPA, an association for student affairs professionals. Twenty-one states expressly ban guns on campus.
Though the carrying of firearms on school grounds has been permitted in Texas since 1995, the new law extends that right to buildings on campus. It authorizes private universities to opt out, which they overwhelmingly have. Public universities were permitted to enact “reasonable rules and regulations” for the policy. In its report to UT Austin President Gregory Fenves, who is expected to issue regulations in mid-February, the group tasked with recommending these provisions conceded, “Every member of the Working Group—including those who are gun owners and license holders—thinks it would be best if guns were not allowed in classrooms.” Nevertheless, it determined, such a ban would violate the law.
Undeterred, Weinberg stood at the meeting to say, “I will put it into my syllabus that the class is not open to students carrying guns.” To applause, he added that he was willing “to expose myself to a lawsuit” should one be brought by the state legislature or individual gun owners.
While admitting he’s no legal scholar, the physicist told The Daily Beast he’s spoken to several in the university’s law school, and based on those conversations, he thinks a First Amendment claim could win in any challenge from the state legislature or an individual gun owner in federal court. “Having guns in the classroom places an undue burden on the rights of free speech of professors and students discussing controversial issues,” he said.
“I think we ought to at least try.”
The head of the campus carry task force, Steven Goode, reportedly called Weinberg’s argument “extraordinarily weak.”
The gun-rights group, Students for Concealed Carry (SCC), has called the banning of firearms from individual classroom an “obvious nonstarter,” along with any rules that would prohibit guns during final exams and during large campus events, or require semiautomatic handguns be carried with an unloaded chamber. The group has called on the Texas legislature to clarify the “reasonable rules” it will allow universities to implement so institutions cannot circumvent or undermine the law’s original intent.
The issue, Weinberg said, isn’t just about keeping his classroom gun-free. Like the other physics professors, Weinberg teaches one class, so the chance that, among his 25 or so astrophysics students, one would have a concealed handgun permit and would choose to exercise that right in his class is low.
“I really don’t expect to be shot,” he said. “but I do expect that state legislation—if we don’t do anything to protect the classroom environment—is going to get in the way of our recruiting. Like every other good university, Texas is always trying to recruit very good graduate students, very good undergraduate students, very good junior faculty. And a lot of them won’t come in an atmosphere where there are guns. I’ve even been getting emails from parents who say they don’t want their son or daughter to come to the University of Texas if there are guns in the classroom.”
The bigger issue, he said, is that the state government is trying to dictate detailed policy for universities. “That’s what Board of Regents are for,” he said.
“I think the important thing in this is not the business of how we’re going to keep guns out of our own classrooms, but that we have rules for the university which allow faculty to decide this issue. I’m all in favor of faculty controlling their own intellectual work and the environment in which they teach.”
For Weinberg, a classroom where any student could be carrying a gun, one where it’s against the law to even ask who might be carrying a concealed weapon, is a problem.
“It would be something on your mind all the time,” he said. “I’ve taught courses on the history of physics that for example describe the interaction between science and religion and I’ve seen a few students get angry because they didn’t like what I said.”
(Dr. Weinberg is a well-known and vocal atheist. Once, notably debating the topic of science-and-religion, he said even a “constructive dialogue” between the two camps “could help to give religion a kind of legitimacy it shouldn’t have.”)
Once, Weinberg said that a student angered by the topic of religion got up and walked out of class.
“I’m glad he wasn’t carrying a gun,” Weinberg said. “He probably wouldn’t have done anything if he was, but who knows?”
Antonia Okafore, southwest regional director for the SCC, told The Daily Beast that Weinberg is simply demonizing concealed handgun license holders, an overwhelmingly law-abiding group. “What’s to stop an illegal carrier who wants to hurt him?” she said.
Okafore said her group is “prepared to use any legal means necessary” if it comes to it, “so that these arbitrary bans based on what a professor wants aren’t allowed.”
“It comes down to what the lawmakers say, not a bureaucratic administrator.”
Weinberg has said he’s prepared to retire, should it come to that, but as of yet he has only heard from people who support his stand. When asked about the SCC, Weinberg said he wasn’t familiar with the group, and they didn’t speak for the majority of the university.
“I don’t know any faculty members who would sympathize with that,” he said. “But it’s a big campus and I’m not surprised. There are probably people who want to go back to the gold standard. There are all sorts of weird views.”