Bulletproof Professor

Kevin Willmott, professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies, wears a bulletproof vest to class in order to spread awareness of the reality of campus carry laws. 

Kevin Willmott, a professor of film and media studies at the University, taught his first class last Tuesday with a bulletproof vest over his clothes.

“Try to forget that I’m wearing a vest, and I’ll try to forget that you could be packing a .44 magnum,” Willmott said.

At the start of his Aug. 22 class, Willmott distributed a letter that said he is wearing a bulletproof vest to protest the new campus carry law. The law, which came into effect July 1, allows anyone over the age of 21 to carry a concealed weapon on University campuses.

“The disturbing part of the policy for me is that it is concealed,” Willmott said. “It’s kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of a policy, and so, you’re just kind of expected to forget that they’re probably there. And in that sense, you’re kind of living in a lie.”

Willmott said the concealed nature of the law reminds him of a “nice/nasty” type of segregation practiced in Lawrence during the 1950s.

When doing research for his film “Jayhawkers,” which tells the story of Kansas basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Willmott said the people he spoke to often had no knowledge of the racial segregation taking place around them.

He said that instead of large signs, businesses would opt for smaller signs that went unnoticed.

“And that’s what this policy is all about,” Willmott said. “They don’t want it to be visible, because if it was visible, if everybody was walking around with a bulletproof vest on, people would say, ‘Oh my God, is this a warzone? What’s going on here?’ And yes, it is a warzone. No one’s started shooting yet. Yet. But we don’t know how many people have guns.”

Willmott said having guns “welcomed” onto campus can obstruct the free flow of ideas in classrooms when controversial topics like race and religion are discussed.

“As a whole, it just puts a damper on free speech for everyone,” Willmott said.

Braden Robinson, a junior from Wichita, was in the classroom when Willmott announced his gesture of protest. Robinson said he thinks Willmott’s gesture will be effective in reminding people about the reality of concealed carry.

“I have mixed feelings about guns. I don’t think they’re all bad. I can see the reasoning for wanting to carry one,” Robinson said. “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.”

In a handout titled “Why I Decided to Teach in a Bulletproof Vest,” Willmott wrote that he sat down next to a Muslim professor during a recent open meeting about the new law. Willmott said the professor expressed her fear of this law, and said it would “affect free speech in her class.”

“Students are scared, professors are scared,” Willmott said. “I think even the administration is frustrated and feeling a little helpless right now. And so, for me, the vest becomes a way for this invisible gun to be exposed.”

The mental health of students can be at risk in college, and guns can make it worse, Willmott said.

“My father died when I was in college,” Willmott said. “Those kinds of things can cause depression, those kinds of things can cause changes in your mental outlook. And if a gun is then involved, those things can lead to tragedies.”

Willmott said he plans to wear the vest for at least a year. According to Robinson, none of his classmates expressed disapproval of the gesture. 

“You know, I’m a filmmaker, and it’s like you’re living in a satire,” Willmott said. “You’re living in this kind of crazy satire where you’re teaching and people can have guns. I mean it’s crazy, it’s crazy. I don’t know how else to say it.”

— Edited by Wesley Dotson