When Kevin Willmott stepped into a University of Kansas classroom wearing a bulletproof vest, his students immediately fell silent.
It was the professor’s way of protesting a state law that allows concealed carry on college and university campuses. The legislation, which was passed in 2013, was implemented over the summer at colleges and universities across the state.
Willmott said that when students and staff members returned to University of Kansas campus in Lawrence last month, he wanted to let them know exactly where he stands on the gun issue.
As he walked into the room on the first day of class, he said that there was “an audible hush.”
“One of the things I told them was, ‘You try to ignore that I’m wearing a bulletproof vest, and I’ll try to ignore that you could be packing a .44 Magnum,’ ” he said.
Willmott, 59, a professor of film and media studies, said in an interview that he does not fear his students — but is convinced that concealed carry on campuses is “a crazy idea.”
“We’ve seen what happened in these horrible incidents at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech and a bunch of places around the country,” Willmott told The Washington Post. “And I don’t think it’s the students’ job to turn into Rambo to try to take on somebody that might be out to do us harm.”
“The whole idea is just insane, and it can only lead to bad things,” he added.
Campus carry has been a contentious issue at colleges and universities in multiple states, where students and faculty have protested similar gun policies. Students at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, attended a demonstration last year armed with sex toys instead of firearms, to fight “absurdity.” At that same school, an economics professor emeritus quit, telling university officials: “Out of self-protection, I have chosen to spend part of next Fall at the University of Sydney, where, among other things, this risk seems lower.”
People were also debating the issue in Kansas last year ahead of the law’s implementation at state colleges and universities.
“When a gun is in a school and harm is meant, there is only one thing that is going to stop that — and that is another gun,” state Sen. Forrest Knox (R) said during a 2016 debate, according to NPR.
As for Willmott, he said the fact that the firearms are concealed may make them more dangerous for everyone.
“If everybody had to walk around with guns strapped on their hips like in the Old West, I think people would be a lot less comfortable with it,” he said. “So me walking around with a bulletproof vest reminds everyone that this is actually going on.”
The Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act, which allowed concealed carry across the state, was passed in the legislature in 2006. A statute was added in 2013 allowing legal gun owners over 21 to carry concealed handguns in public buildings, including state college and university campuses. But it provided an exemption for educational institutions, among others, allowing them to opt out until July 1 of this year, to allow them to prepare and implement policies.
The University of Kansas’s new weapons policy states that handguns must be secured in holsters and carried unloaded with the safety feature on.
The handgun must also not be seen by others and be under the carrier’s custody and control — on the body or in a backpack or purse — or in a safe storage device or secure location — such as a locked vehicle. Except when necessary for transferring to safe storage or self-defense, a handgun must not be openly displayed. Violations of policy may result in individuals being asked to leave campus with the weapon and being cited for trespass if they refuse. University employees or students who violate policy may face discipline through applicable university codes of conduct.
Willmott, a feature filmmaker who has worked with Spike Lee, among others, said he wanted to think of a visual way to respond to concealed carry.
Still, when he walked into his classroom on Aug. 22, he acknowledged it was “a little uncomfortable, because this is not the normal world.”
He read his students his syllabus and the university’s weapons policy — along with an amendment of his own: Bulletproof vests would also be permitted in his class. He then offered students a handout explaining why he chose to wear one.
“WHY I DECIDED TO TEACH IN A BULLET PROOF VEST” announced that “leadership in Topeka has decided to encourage young people to secretly carry firearms on campus.”
Willmott provided a copy of the handout to The Post.
It states, in part:
I am a native Kansan having grown up in Junction City and 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 level headedness and restraint that I have decided to wear a bullet proof vest while teaching my courses this year at Kansas University. 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 have weapons. We cannot ask and they cannot tell. As well, the policy 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 carrier is on their own with the gun and as long as the instructor, students or others don’t see the weapon — we must trust them with the weapon.
Willmott said he made the decision to protest concealed carry after he attended an open meeting at the school about the policy.
He said he sat next to a Muslim professor who told him it would be a detriment to free speech in her classroom because of fear.
“I think it’s a detriment to free speech as a whole on campus,” he said. “Race is a really turbulent issue, and it’s even more turbulent right now. Will people be honest about their feelings?”
Willmott said a major part of the college experience is learning to discuss issues that are “touchy” but important — and he believes concealed carry will have a chilling effect on university campuses.
“It’s hard to get into those kinds of discussions that are obviously emotional and fragile in various ways in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of religion when you’re thinking about someone possibly having a gun,” he said.
Willmott said that classroom conversations occasionally become volatile “and you don’t want to worry about where this discussion is going to lead and you don’t want to have to cut the discussion off when it becomes a little emotional because of fear of someone having a gun and losing their cool. It’s really about fear.
“And I think there’s even a worse side to it — that people won’t talk at all.”
Since he started protesting, Willmott said that he has not personally received any backlash for his views (except on social media) and that professors and students have reached out in solidarity.
Braden Robinson, a junior at the college, told the University Daily Kansan that he was in the class when Willmott announced his decision.
“I have mixed feelings about guns. I don’t think they’re all bad; I can see the reasoning for wanting to carry one,” he told the student newspaper. “But I just don’t think that a place that promotes free speech should have guns. That would definitely affect someone’s willingness to talk, especially if they have an opinion that might be unpopular.”
However, the professor’s stance has been criticized by some, who question his negative views of lawful gun owners.
Garrett Miller, identified as a conservative student by Campus Reform, told the news site that the professor’s assertions were “borderline ludicrous” because the university already has restrictive policies on free speech.
He also said Willmott’s point about the .44 Magnum is not relevant, telling Campus Reform that the professor “should have done research on what handguns are generally used for concealed carry.”
“Any gun expert will tell you that a .44 is not recommended for conceal carry due to the fact that a .44 is too bulky due to the size of the barrel and grip,” he said.
For the past two weeks, Willmott said he has been carrying his bulletproof vest into classroom before strapping it on — to illustrate to his students what he believes will become a new normal.
“It’s kind of book bag, laptop, cellphone, handgun and ammunition,” he said. “So in countering that, I walk into class with a bulletproof vest and put it on in front of the students so they know this is the new preparation for class.”
The university did not respond to requests for comment on the concealed carry policy or Willmott’s response.
But in a note to faculty and staff, Neeli Bendapudi, provost and executive vice chancellor of the university, acknowledged that many had “expressed concerns about the recent change in Kansas’ Personal and Family Protection Act affecting concealed carry on campus.”
This story has been updated.