For gun-rights advocates, a mass shooting at a school is perhaps the most difficult national tragedy to respond to. Faced with the macabre spectacle of young people – or, in the case of the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., children – lying dead in classrooms, groups such as the NRA can only suggest that more guns would lead to less violence, a conclusion met with skepticism by many Americans.
Yet, at the University of Texas at Austin where some say prohibitions on carrying weapons endanger students, two guns rights groups are staging what one organizer called a “fake mass shooting” to bring attention to their cause this Saturday.
“It’s a fake mass shooting, and we’ll use fake blood,” Matthew Short, a spokesman for the gun rights groups Come and Take It Texas and DontComply.com, told the Austin-American Statesman.
Alternately described as an “open carry walk and crisis performance” at DontComply.com, the event will feature “crisis actors” who, presumably, will act out the death throes of those targeted by a fictional mass murderer.
“Local groups Come And Take It Texas and DontComply.com will once again take to the streets armed with rifles and pistols on display followed by a crisis performance on UT campus,” a statement posted at DontComply explained. “In the wake of yet another mass shooting one thing is clear, Gun Free Zones are killing us. These target rich environments are letting our children be murdered by evil people. Now is the time to stand up, take a walk, and put pressure on politicians to ban Gun Free Zones.”
On the event’s Facebook page, organizers added: “In the wake of yet another gun free zone shooting, Obama is using it to aggressively push his gun confiscation agenda. Now is the time to stand up, take a walk, speak out against the lies and put an end to the gun free killing zones.”
Speaking to the Statesman, Short underlined the link between high body counts and laws that prevent citizens from packing heat.
“We want criminals to fear the public being armed,” he said. “An armed society is a polite society.” (Short and other organizers of the event were not immediately available for further comment.)
At Austin – known as a blue bastion in a very red state – not everyone agreed.
“Staging a mass shooting during an anxious time for students – finals week – not only breaks rules but shows real disrespect for the feelings of students, faculty and staff who don’t want to have guns around them in the first place, but will be forced to put up with guns in public places in 2016,” history professor Joan Neuberger, who helps lead Gun Free UT, a gun-control advocacy group, said.
The university, meanwhile, questioned whether Come and Take It Texas and DontComply.com – two groups with no official school affiliation – had the right to protest on campus in the first place.
“When outside individuals come on campus and violate our rules regarding use of our grounds and facilities, they are asked to leave,” university spokesman J.B. Bird said in a statement, pointing out that the Westboro Baptist Church has also been denied the right to stage events at the school. “If they do not, it becomes a criminal trespass matter. We suggest that any outside organizations planning such events on campus relocate them to other space where they would be allowed.”
Indeed, after the university made the announcement, organizers said the demonstration would be moved. Just not very far.
“We will move forward with the event on the adjacent public land using UT as the backdrop,” organizer Murdoch Pizgatti said.
The mock mass shooting comes to Austin as the university struggles with the right of students to bear arms. Currently, people with concealed handgun permits can carry weapons in certain areas on campus, including parking lots.
However, a law passed in June set to go into effect in August of next year will greatly broaden the right to carry on campus, allowing weapons in dorms and in classrooms. Though the school is studying the issue, any “rules and regulations may not either ‘generally prohibit’ or ‘have the effect of generally prohibiting’ license holders from carrying concealed handguns on campus,” as the university explained on its website.
“Campus carry is stirring up tangible fear and unnecessary tensions at UT,” the Daily Texan, the school’s newspaper, editorialized in October. “And the fact that the Texas Legislature can exercise that degree of power over the environment on campus with a single midnight vote is just as worrying as the law itself.”
In June, the Texas Tribune summed up the divided opinion of Texas voters on campus carry: “While 37 percent of voters are against campus carry, 25 percent would allow handguns anywhere on campus, and another 26 percent would allow it if the schools could determine whether they should be allowed.”
Meanwhile, the debate about the Second Amendment on college campuses has special meaning at the University of Austin. In 1966, it was there that Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering major and ex-Marine, gunned down 14 people from the campus’s tower in what may be the first mass shooting in modern memory.
“The crime scene spanned the length of five city blocks . . . and covered the nerve center of what was then a relatively small, quiet college town,” Pamela Colloff wrote in an oral history on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. “Hundreds of students, professors, tourists, and store clerks witnessed the 96-minute killing spree as they crouched behind trees, hid under desks, took cover in stairwells, or, if they had been hit, played dead.”
She added: Whitman “introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space.”