It’s famous as a venue for great music, but on a weekday afternoon the tiny stage in the corner of the Cactus Café & Bar is empty, and the only sound is the tapping of keys on laptops and the soft tones of conversation.
Mark Sheridan spends much of his time here, perched at one of the tiny round wooden tables. He’s not enjoying a midday pint, however. A doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, he’s one of several graduate students with teaching responsibilities who hold office hours in this and other local bars.
That’s because, with the university among the increasing number in the US where people may legally carry arms on campus, bars are among the few places under Texas law that prohibit guns.
“We wanted at least some aspect of control in this crazy situation,” said Mr Sheridan, an Irishman who is married to an American. “We felt this would be a good way to get back some of the control we had lost and also start conversations.”
Graduate students holding office hours in bars is one example of how what Sheridan calls the “absurdity” of allowing guns on campus is affecting life at US universities. Faculty also complain of feeling forced to avoid controversial topics that might result in classroom confrontations; two academics at another Texas university have left, and department heads report unease among candidates for jobs. And there have been at least two unintended discharges of guns on campuses where they can be carried legally: one in a classroom at Idaho State University and one in a residence hall at yet another university in Texas.
So-called campus carry laws are spreading quickly as a response to mass shootings in the US. Proponents argue that well-defended students and faculty can discourage such incidents, or at least defend themselves, and that banning guns on campuses gives the advantage to the shooters.
Despite opposition from university administrators and police, seven of the 50 states now allow licensed gun owners to bring concealed weapons on to college campuses: Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah. Kansas has approved such a measure, which will take effect on 1 July; so has the Senate in Wisconsin. Arkansas and Tennessee allow full-time faculty, but not students, to carry guns on campus.
When campus carry became legal in Texas last year, it was met at the University of Texas by a high-profile “cocks not Glocks” protest of opponents wielding dildos. Now, other than some anti-gun posters in faculty offices, there is little other overt evidence of controversy.
Texas law still prohibits guns in some places in addition to bars, including airports, sports venues and laboratories with delicate equipment or inflammable chemicals. “We joked about holding our office hours in a radiology lab,” said Mr Sheridan, who is attached to the department of rhetoric and writing.
Full-time faculty can also ban guns from their private on-campus offices. But graduate students, who share common areas, cannot.
Mr Sheridan said that his motivation for holding office hours in the Cactus Café was to reduce risk, but also to make a statement.
“We want to be as far away from anybody who’s carrying a gun as possible,” Mr Sheridan said. “There’s also a certain symbolic aspect of this.”
Rebecca Johnston holds her office hours in the same bar.
“For me, first and foremost, I would rather, if I have my way, not have my students be armed when I’m talking to them,” said Ms Johnston, who studies and teaches history.
She recalled having to deal with a student upset about his grade. “He was pretty agitated,” Ms Johnston said. “And I was thinking to myself, if the student is this upset, it’s more comfortable for me if they don’t have a gun.”
Universities, she said, “are supposed to be a place for unfettered learning and creativity. The chilling effect is very individual. Some professors are worried about it, and some are not. But it makes everybody think twice. It makes me think twice, just in terms of what I bring up [in the classroom].
“It scares people. It scares me, and it scares the professors that I know,” said Ms Johnston. “It’s disruptive to the general learning experience. And it helps normalise that we have this insane status quo. We have school shootings, so the solution should be, ‘Let’s have more students have guns’?”