I really thought the protest would be bigger. I’ve been in Austin almost a week and at least once a day someone has asked whether I’ve heard about the mock shooting happening at the University of Texas that weekend. With each new mention, I bought further into the narrative that this rally— a pro-gun “fake shooting” in support of Texas’ newly passed campus carry law—might be more than a blip on the “Today in Texas…” news radar.
But as I navigate my way down Guadalupe Street, nothing demonstrative is going on anywhere near campus. The gun advocates had planned to march down UT’s main drag armed with working rifles, before staging a mock mass shooting to protest the ostensible dangers of gun-free zones. In the haze of a humid rain, however, no rifle-toting march is winding down the road; Guadalupe is instead packed with young shoppers and families all without umbrellas, all seemingly unaware that a plastic gun battle might erupt at any minute.
I drive over to the rendezvous point for members of Don’t Comply and Come And Take It, two conservative groups organizing the rally in support of campus carry. Though the idea of a fake mass shooting making a case for more guns seems comical, I’m not laughing. The San Bernardino, California shooting, just 30 miles from my own home, is still fresh in my mind.
For the first time in a week, I’m acutely aware of the fact that the guns I oppose are no longer hypothetical. When you don’t grow up with guns, their dangers are only dire in the abstract; sneak up on a group of people armed with their own artillery and fear starts to creep in.
Earlier this year, the Texas legislature passed a law allowing concealed firearms in classrooms, dormitories, and other buildings on public college campuses. Despite widespread controversy, and strong opposition from the chancellor of the University of Texas, the bill passed by a wide margin in a Republican-heavy Texas legislature. Universities still have the option of establishing gun-free zones on campus before the law goes into effect next summer. Depending on which side you’re on, this is either a minor step up from the already-legal concealed carry on outdoor university grounds—or a major blow to the battle for gun control. Given that Come And Take It’s logo is a smoking gun, it’s not hard to guess which way they’d see it.
But I’m surprised to see that the crowd gathered at the garage only consists of six or seven students. The group is outflanked by a gaggle of reporters and cameramen, nearly three to a protester, all standing around, willing something to happen. There are no campus carry advocates—or their rifles—in sight, and no one seems to have any idea where they’ve gone, least of all the handful of students wearing matching burnt orange “Students Hooked on Texas” shirts, and carrying signs decrying campus carry.
“Given our school’s past, this demonstration is in incredibly poor taste,” one student tells a group of reporters. Her protest sign, Our History is not a Joke!, references the 1966 shooting at UT Austin, often referred to as the first mass school shooting, when former Marine Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus from the school’s iconic Tower building. Whitman killed 14 and injured 32 over a span of 90 minutes, before being killed by police gunfire. The campus carry law, passed in October, is set to go into effect on August 1, 2016—the 50th anniversary of Whitman’s massacre.
Despite the fierce soundbites from the counterprotesters, the mood is convivial, which feels incongruous for a protest about life and death. I ask a curly-haired student who had been speaking to a news crew seconds prior what got him involved in protesting campus carry. “Well, I only heard about this rally on Facebook a few days ago,” he admits. “But I’m involved in student government, so it’s really important that the campus feels safe to the students I represent.”
The drizzle starts to clear as I cut my way over to campus for the demonstration. Other than one lingering advocate with a plastic rifle strapped to his back and a sign that reads “To conquer a nation, first disarm its citizens.” – Adolf Hitler, no one else from Don’t Comply has returned to the parking garage, and a rumor has begun to spread amongst the college students that their small vigilante group has scared off the campus carry protesters.
A few blocks away, another group has gathered. But their counter-protest has taken a drastically different approach from the media-savvy Students Hooked on Texas: an absurdist “mass farting.” Armed with rubber dildos, flatulence noise makers, and signs with phrases such as New World Odor, the group is slowly picking up a crowd of amused passersby, while Andrew Dobbs, their megaphone-wielding leader, decries the mock shooting.
“We will not live in fear,” yells Dobbs, a former UT student. “If you think guns on campus are a good idea, I’m going to fart in your face.” A man in Tevas and glasses approaches Dobbs to air a counterpoint: “How is a mass farting better for college campuses than guns, when it comes to saving lives?”
“Sir, do you believe students should be able to bring guns to campus?” Dobbs fires back. To a chorus of boos, the man reluctantly agrees that he does, but before he can launch a defense, Dobbs has instructed his followers to all fart on the dissenter. En masse, the group pivots 180 degrees and takes a squat while waving dildos and fart machines until he retreats.
Soon, a blonde, middle-aged woman named Nancy dressed in a Come and Take It shirt, cowboy hat, and sunglasses has quickly replaced him, shouting “Hashtag second amendment!” in response to Dobbs’ speeches. Nancy is the only Don’t Comply protester who squares off against the mass farters and their grassroots audience, and despite our diametrically opposed stances on gun control, I admired her brass balls. She’d later tell me she graduated from UT shortly after Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus.
“[Whitman] didn’t stop shooting until someone took him down with a gun, but UT still thinks fewer guns are the solution?” she tells me. Underneath the gravelly bravado, I hear something familiar in her voice: Even on the other side, for Nancy, fear has set in.
The crowd has continued to swell around Dobbs. A group of men carrying cardboard signs that read No Guns for Whites admits that they just wanted to paint “abrasive phrases” to incite a reaction. Every so often, campus police officers usher the protesters across the line of demarcation between the school and the public sidewalk, but the swarm of protesters has grown to 60, though the atmosphere remains jocular.
Facebook tells us the group has moved their protest yet again, this time three blocks away from campus. The Mass Farters, the cardboard sign anarchists, and a throng of rubberneckers, tourists, and reporters have begun to make their way down Guadalupe like an ever growing dust cloud, visions of a confrontation being gleefully shouted out. Despite having reached a critical mass of anti-gun advocates, the protest still doesn’t feel like a protest, largely due to the soundtrack of flatulence noises that pierce the air every few seconds.
As we walk, I ask Cindy, a motherly woman waving an enormous green rubber cock at passing traffic, if she thinks that mass farting could effectively organize manpower in a fight for gun control.
“Of course it can,” she replied. “We have to bring all we can to the fight, so we mock the idea that guns fight guns by telling people carrying dildos would be just as effective.”
A few paces behind Cindy, a college-aged couple whispers to each other. Jason, the boyfriend, tells me he came to the university after growing up in South Africa. “It’s so different here, because we didn’t grow up with guns. Obviously I don’t want guns on campus, but…”
He trails off, looking to his girlfriend, who pipes in with a Texan twang. “But it’s like, these protests are so silly,” she says. “We went to a really good protest a few weeks ago and now I don’t even remember what it was about. Everything just feels diluted.”
As we reach 26th and Whiting, an intersection a few blocks from the original mock shooting location, Dobbs and the band of protesters stop. While Don’t Comply activists are still nowhere in sight, their mock shooting staging is: a set of chalk outlines drawn on the ground, squirted with ketchup.
The result is even more absurd than the mass farting. The chalk sketches are playful and akimbo; the ketchup is so scarce it blends into the remnant puddles and torn leaves from earlier rain. A group of campus police officers offered some clarity to the confused crowd: the pro-gun activists had shown up and enacted a fake shooting with paper guns at the same time that the Mass Farters were holding court back on campus.
According to Come and Take It founder Murdoch Pizgatti, who finally arrives at the scene of the chalk crime when much of the crowd had dissipated, it took campus police 10 minutes to arrive (though UTPD police chief David Carter pointed out that with no real weapons, there was no threat to respond to).
“Shooters are impolite and unpredictable,” Pizgatti would later tell me. “Anyone can avoid a shooting they know is coming, but gun-free zones turn you into sitting ducks.”
“What we wanted to accomplish today was showing the difference between a gun free zone and what can happen when civilians are armed and can protect themselves,” adds Phoenix Horton, founder of Don’t Comply.
I ask Horton about how Don’t Comply reconciles the fact that the Senate bill that approved campus carry was never intended to protect students from mass shootings. Representative Allen Fletcher, who authored the bill, told CNN after it passed: “I didn’t file this bill so concealed handguns could be heroes in mass-shooting situations. I filed this bill to allow CL holders to protect themselves in situations where the only two people involved are a law-abiding citizen and a criminal intent on doing them harm – a much more likely scenario than a mass shooting event.”
But if the gun control advocates were a scattered bunch, the brief alliance of Don’t Comply and Come and Take It is just as tenuous with each other as it is with the spirit of the campus carry law advocates. As Pizgatti walks away, Horton is quick to point a finger at Come and Take It, rather than clarify why the groups opted for a mass shooting analogy: “Don’t Comply isn’t just about gun control, you know. We also feed the homeless, and defend Bitcoin usage, but no one talks about that.”
I ask him if he believes that a concealed weapon makes him feel safer in public. “Oh, I don’t have a concealed weapon permit,” says Horton. “I don’t even know how to shoot a gun.”
As the last of the mass fart protesters thin out, I’m finally able to put my finger on where my fear is stemming from: the seeming lack of fear on the part of the protesters. Absurdist protests have held a storied place in social activism, but even after adjusting for the anarchic, something still feels off. They don’t appear to actually give a shit.
Protests in the age of social media often can’t win for trying. Protesting is far less widespread than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, and though it’s never been easier to collectivize and broadcast social issues than before, the slapdash nature of reaction preceding organization can leave even well-organized movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter feeling problematic at best, and failures at worst. But despite all the criticism, both share one immutable trait. Their protesters seem to really believe in the cause.
Neither Pizgatti nor Horton are aware that the state Senate had already declared mass shootings unlikely to be stopped by expanded campus carry laws. Most anti-campus carry attendees showed up simply to heckle the concept of a staged mass shooting; Dobbs himself, the leader of the mass farting faction, tells me today was more about fighting one absurd protest with the other.
Even the philanthropy club members in Students Hooked on Texas have agendas to push; a 23-year-old alum serving as one of the group’s mouthpieces, Huey Fischer, spends more time speaking in platitudes about his bid for a state representative seat in Austin’s 49th district than he does elucidating why he feels guns don’t belong in college campus buildings (which was the original question).
Perhaps my expectations for the mock shooting and the counter-protests it spawned were just as performative as the protesters themselves, but having attended a similarly flat Planned Parenthood vigil at the Texas State Capitol a few days prior, I couldn’t shake the fact that at some point, signs were being carried for the sake of shock value, rather than amplifying the voices of 100 rain-soaked attendees. I left Saturday’s protest unsettled, no longer by a fear of guns, but by a fear of apathy.
Beejoli Shah (@beejoli) has written for New York Magazine, SPIN, The Guardian, Matter, and other publications, reporting on entertainment, technology, and culture. She currently lives in Austin.