Forget books, carry a gun!

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I am an educator, a college professor to be exact. I have taught at eight schools in three different states. I do not carry a gun. My students (I hope) do not carry guns. The biggest problems I face in the classroom are web-surfing and text messaging. This is easily solved – laptops are banned and texters reprimanded and marked “absent.” What would happen if I – or my students – carried concealed weapons?

I tend to teach “hot-button” topics – race, gender, sexual orientation. I often teach to students who take my courses as part of a requirement which means they don’t want to be there and are already hostile to the material (and to me) before we’ve had our first class meeting. All these factors mean that I not only have to teach the material, I have to “win over” the students so that they are open-minded enough to actually learn something. It is not easy. Sometimes I fail.

However, as it is now, an upset student has a few options, most of which are non-violent. They can complain to me. They can complain to my boss (the department Chair). They can withdraw from the class. They can refuse to do the work (and then fail, and then complain to me about it). I suppose a really, really upset student could lay in wait for me in the parking lot and assault me. Fortunately, this has never happened and I suspect it is unlikely to in the future.

What my students cannot do is legally carry a weapon on campus and into the classroom and threaten me or their fellow students. I take great comfort in this fact. As I mentioned, I teach “hot-button” topics. The possibility of heated debates, extreme emotions and insults is high. The rule in my classrooms is that we do not have to agree but that we must always be respectful. But enforcing this among 20 or more teenagers is always a challenge.

For example: I was teaching a course on U.S. settlement and westward expansion to a class in the southwest. My students were of various races and ethnicities. During a discussion of the annexation of Northern Mexico which gave the U.S. most of the southwest (including the state in which we were holding class), a white American male student told a Mexican American male student to “go back where you came from.” The Mexican American student replied, “I am where I came from – why don’t you get out?” Both students then rose from their seats and cocked their fists, getting ready to fight. I diffused the situation, we were able to continue class and neither student ever gave me any trouble after that day. Imagine how differently things might have gone if these students had guns.

The speed at which things can get out of hand is astonishing and the ability to summon help is woefully inadequate. These young men were no more than three feet away from me but by the time I moved out from behind the lectern and got between them, they were already almost in a brawl. A quick-drawing student would have fired at least one shot before I could have done anything. And I would not have put myself between two armed students, which would have left the rest of the class vulnerable and in harm’s way. There was no campus phone in this classroom. Phones are often missing from classrooms which means faculty in trouble must leave the classroom and go to a hallway phone or dial from their own cell phones (which most faculty turn off when they’re teaching).

Many proponents of arming students and teachers believe this is a way to avoid (or respond quickly to) incidents of violence on school campuses. However, this is a gross misrepresentation of the actual facts. While mass shootings such as those at Virginia Tech rightfully garner widespread media attention, information compiled by the Department of Justice clearly demonstrates that the greatest danger to young people is posed outside of school: “In each year during the period 1992–93 to 2007–08, there were at least 50 times as many homicides of youth away from school than at school and generally at least 150 times as many suicides of youth away from school than at school.” This data includes the year (2007) of the Virginia Tech shootings – even that tragic event didn’t tip the scales. Students are still more likely to encounter deadly violence away from school campuses.

Carrying guns in schools is simply a bad idea. We already know that students are at greater risk off-campus and it is easy to infer that campuses where students are allowed to carry guns are less safe than gun-free campuses. Danger is not only physical but also mental and emotional. The threat of deadly violence hampers both students’ and teachers’ abilities to engage in meaningful dialogue. If I knew that my students could pull a gun on me the moment I challenged their preconceived ideas and biases, I would (I’m sad to say) greatly alter my teaching methods. I may even change the curriculum to avoid the “hot-button” topics altogether. I may – and I imagine many of my colleagues may – give up teaching for a safer occupation.

Is this the kind of “education” we want for our children and young adults? Perhaps. I do not think it is a coincidence that the “guns in classrooms” legislation is being pushed in states like Texas and Arizona. These states have high non-white (primarily Latino) populations and debates about what the curriculum should include are well-documented. Arizona, for example, has been trying to dismantle Ethnic Studies departments and curricula – precisely the kinds of classes I teach and in which discussions can become highly-charged. If we allow guns in classrooms, we don’t need legislation banning Ethnic Studies. Most teachers will voluntarily switch to “safer” topics. And those who don’t will face a hostile – and fully armed – classroom.