Aussie’s scary texts expose gun problem
WHEN her phone pinged twice in 20 minutes with "university safety alert" texts, Nina Hitchins got a stark reminder of the vast and deadly gap between universities in Australia and the US.
"Another unattended gun was found in the women's rest room," the second text from the University of Texas' police department began.
Two unattended guns found on campus in two days.
For the 29-year-old Australian studying in the US, it was yet another reminder of Texas gun law which sees armed students allowed on her campus daily.
"I think legislators thought that the conceal carry laws would enable a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. But when the good guys leave their guns in the rest room, we can't expect a positive outcome," she said.
It's a law that saw the 29-year-old question whether she should continue her studies at the University of Texas.
In Nina's four years in the US, mass shootings may have become routine.
"I'm completing an MBA at the University of Texas, and at business school where the first gun was found," Nina told news.com.au
"In the weeks after I accepted admission to the UT (in 2016) the conceal carry law passed. I questioned whether I should go, but ultimately decided it was worth the risk."
She still finds it scary that the campus police openly carry guns, and "guard" university football games with semi-automatic weapons but "everyone else seems to be used to it".
But with the Valentine's Day mass shooting in Florida fresh in her mind, the two texts highlighted yet again America's obsession with the "right to bear arms" against a reignited gun control debate.
GUNS IN THE RESTROOM
The text alerts related to two separate guns found at the University of Texas' Austin campus.
Both handguns had been left behind by their owners in different buildings at two different campuses.
The first was found on Tuesday inside a women's rest room at the main campus.
Campus police retrieved it, and the following day it was claimed by its student owner - who was licensed to carry it.
On Wednesday, it happened again. Another handgun was left in a women's toilet. Its owner, attending a conference at the university, came to retrieve it as police arrived.
Both guns were in their holsters. Both owners were licensed. Both were reported by random people who walked in to find them unattended. There will be possible police charges and the student could be expelled.
But the fact is, many students never wanted guns on campus in the first place.
Nina grew up in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, but has been in the US for four years, first in Boston, and now, Austin, Texas.
"Truth be told Austin and Boston are not all that different. They both have large student populations and are quite liberal," she said.
"The vast majority of people I meet strongly disagree with the conceal carry law (which allows the guns on campus). But Texas laws are written for the whole of Texas and the state university in its most liberal city must comply."
GUNS IN THE CLASSROOM
It's been that way since 2016, when Texas changed its gun laws in two key ways.
The first made it legal from January 2016 for concealed handgun licence holders to "open carry" handguns throughout the state except in institutions including schools and universities.
The second law allowed gun licence holders to carry concealed handguns on public university campuses.
Two years on, Nina says she's not the only student who thinks the conceal carry laws do the "opposite of what state politicians hoped".
"They make the campus less safe not more, and these events (two forgotten handguns) support that," she says.
"If you wander around the UT campus you'll spot many signs in the office windows stating 'Gun Free UT'. There is also a big student movement to protest the law."
The University boasts more than 51,000 students across 18 colleges and schools, and according to its website, estimates one per cent of its students have licences to carry a handgun.
In general, students with a license to carry have the right to have a concealed handgun with them in classrooms: UT staff and faculty members do not have authority to ban them.
Handgun owners must have the gun "on or about their person at all times -
meaning it must be close enough for them to grasp without changing position - if it's in a backpack, it must always be in reach - or secure their handgun in a locked, privately-owned or leased motor vehicle", University rules state.
There are exclusion zones, including child care facilities, any business where 51 per cent of income comes from selling or serving alcohol, sports stadiums and laboratories, where permit or not, guns are not allowed.
"Open carry on campus is still illegal, so you don't see anyone walking around with a gun on their hip on campus," Nina says.
"Truth be told, I've never even seen it around Austin. It's not that kind of city where people think that openly carrying a weapon is OK."
STUDENT OPPOSITION TO GUNS
In August 2016 when the state laws decreeing guns could legally be carried on campus took effect, students held what was hailed as one of the "largest anti-gun rallies in Texas history".
The event, satirically named "Campus (Dildo) Carry" mocked the new "Campus Carry" law.
Protesters hit upon the theme when they realised under Texas obscenity law, it's illegal to brandish a dildo in public, yet loaded guns (concealed or otherwise) capable of inflicting instant death were legally welcomed and encouraged in public.
The University campaigned against Campus Carry being legalised, especially in classrooms.
When it went ahead, University President Gregory L. Fenves made clear the policy was only coming into effect because it was law.
"Under the law, I cannot adopt a policy that has the general effect of excluding licensed concealed handguns from campus," Prof Fenves wrote in an update of the university website.
"I agree with the working group that a classroom exclusion would have this effect.
"I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date.
"I empathise with the many faculty members, staffers, students and parents of students who signed petitions, sent emails and letters, and organised to ban guns from campus and especially classrooms.
"As a professor, I understand the deep concerns raised by so many.
"However, as president, I have an obligation to uphold the law."
'IT'S TOO EASY FOR ANYONE TO GET THEIR HANDS ON A GUN HERE'
In four years in the US, Nina says sadly, she's realised "the mass shootings are occurring with such frequency that the discussions that follow them become routine".
"The gun incidents that only involve one or two deaths barely even register. There is just too many of them for a single one to receive national or state news coverage," she said. "That's very different to home."
With each mass shooting, she says, the mood among the student body is one of "unease and hopelessness".
"It's just too easy for anyone to get their hands on a gun here," she says.
"Most Americans want that too, but the reasoned voice of majority continues to be drowned out. I'd love to see the US adopt some of the gun reforms Australia adopted after Port Arthur, including the buyback and amnesty.
"After every shooting, I just feel frustrated, because more people are dying in vain. It's all preventable and should be criminal for policy makers to ignore.
"The only way the Florida shooting will affect change is if youth of this country have the energy to motivate everyone around them (particularly parents and community leaders) to act."