It is long past time for us to have a national conversation about gun violence, that is, the number of Americans who die of gunshots. This will, by necessity, entail talking about gun control. This could get tricky, I know. But unless a conversation flows both ways, it becomes a lecture or a diatribe or something equally unpleasant, and unhelpful. Both sides must be willing to listen and really hear the other side’s point of view. And each must articulate the fears and needs that hide behind the talking points. This is where commonalities will be found. This is where we can start to build consensus. This is how we can save lives.
Gun violence is a huge topic and breaking it down can help us grasp it, allowing it to make more sense. Statistics are one way to get a handle on how severe the problem truly is, how urgent and intolerable it has become. Two main ones that stand out for me are: More than 1,000,000 Americans have lost their lives to gun violence in the past 45 years. Since President Kennedy was assassinated, more than a million other Americans have prematurely joined him in death, shot by a gun. Secondly, the number of Americans killed in the “War on Terror”, to my reckoning, includes those killed on 9-11 (2977), those killed in Iraq (4487) and those killed in Afghanistan. As of 9-30-12, that number was 2,000, the most recent data I could find. Those three numbers total 9,464. However, every single year, more than 30,000 Americans die from bullets being fired into their bodies. That’s three times more Americans dying needlessly, every single year, than were killed so far in the War on Terror. That’s like a Boeing 747 crashing into the ground, fully loaded, killing everyone on board, every 5-6 days, week in and week out, year after year. And huge numbers of people thinking that it’s OK. That is no longer acceptable to me. We are fighting the wrong war.
Guns are dangerous. That is their sole and express purpose. They were invented to be used by people to kill either animals or other people. Yes, I am aware of the 2nd Amendment. However, the interpretation that each individual has the absolute and unlimited right to own a gun, or four, regardless of whether they are part of a militia or not, is historically quite recent. Only in the last 40 years or so. And we have all been taught, with rights come responsibilities. It is a fallacious argument to say that any regulation on gun ownership is an infringement of that right. Guns are already being regulated, as are other dangerous products, such as tobacco, alcohol and motor vehicles. If the rate of deaths from these other products is too high, the government steps in and legislates ways to reduce it. That’s why Ford Pintos are not on the road, why seat belts are mandatory, and why there are limits on tobacco sales. The government did not simply ban all cars, any more than they are trying to ban all guns. They created limits to make them safer.
I am also aware of the NRA. My understanding is that they have more than four million members in America. Good. That means we have a wide cross-section of people who can bring their ideas to the table. Because I don’t for a minute believe that their leadership speaks for them with its appalling idea of having armed teachers in every school as being the best solution to the rare but agonizing gun mass murders such as at Newtown. I am a teacher and I did think through this idea. Here’s my take on what could result.
I taught for seven years in an inner city urban high school which had two armed police officers on campus, as well as two nurses, a behavior specialist, four male hall monitors and two probation officers. Yes, on campus. Enough of our students had legal problems which required them to report to a probation officer that it was easier to bring the PO to the kids. That way, they would miss much less school. Sadly, my students are all too familiar with gun violence and murder. We had a student shot at in a drive-by shooting in front of the building at 10:00 a.m. one school day. Over Christmas break two years ago, we lost a student to a bullet that was apparently intended for his brother. I dare say, by the time they graduate, fully 90% of the students at that school know someone who has died from gun violence.
We have had students who bring weapons to campus. Sometimes knives, once a machete, and sometimes guns. Gang violence and rivalries are deeply entrenched there. A single look or wrong word can easily start a fight. I had a student tell me once that he was afraid of getting jumped by someone in a rival gang. He obtained a gun, and hid it near a store on his way to school, so it would be accessible, should he need it when the school day was over. But he did not bring it to campus. He knew that was wrong, and could bring even bigger problems on his head.
And here’s a little secret. Our students know they will be suspended for fighting. But they also believe they must fight, if challenged, to maintain their dignity, and the respect of others. Their main motivation is to never appear weak. So, if they feel they must fight, they often do so at school. Why, you ask? Because they know an adult will intervene and stop it before anybody is seriously hurt. They can retain their street cred and still be relatively safe. Unless you add guns at school to the equation.
Schools are aware of the potential for gun violence and we have safety plans in place. At the start of each school year, we staff members receive a training from our school police officers on how to handle ourselves and manage our students in various scenarios, including a fire, a hazardous materials spill or a shooting in or near the school. Very explicit instructions for “lock-down” are given and there is no deviation allowed. Lives are at risk. Actually, we once had a lockdown due to an armed robbery near the school. And another for a possible pipe bomb. Even though we heard other classrooms of students leaving and many voices outside the building, we stayed locked in our classroom until an officer let us out, hours later.
My concerns with having armed teachers are numerous and, to me, insurmountable. First and foremost, especially for the inner city demographic, our main duty is to keep our students safe, and to help them feel safe. Learning cannot take place if students feel they are under threat. Therefore, if students feel coming to school is so unsafe that teachers must be armed, that will be beyond disruptive to the learning environment. And believe me, my students would not feel comfortable relying on a designated teacher to cover their backs. They would feel the need to bring their own weapons. And they would.
Suddenly, you would have massively multiplied the number of deadly weapons in a small and densely populated space, already rife with gang violence and filled with young people, many of whom don’t believe they’re going to live to adulthood, anyway. Now, a look or gesture could easily lead to a shooting, instead of a fist fight. With untold injuries and deaths. And fights always lead to retaliation, to more fights. Sometimes for weeks.
Let’s imagine that a person is planning a mass murder shooting at my school. He wants to go out in a blaze of glory, like the killers in Columbine. Research tells us that those perpetrators spend months planning their crime. One of the first things they would uncover is the identity of the armed teachers on campus. And that would be easy. The students would know. Those teachers, who are now not only acting as teachers, parents, and social workers, but also soldiers, would become the first targets.
How can a teacher possibly keep a gun on campus safely? It would have to be locked up, separate from the ammunition. Some of my students steal anything that’s not nailed down. What a tempting item that would be. Or it could be taken and used against the teacher. I’ve seen more than one teacher assaulted by students, sometimes by multiple assailants (who were all members of the same gang.) If it were kept safely locked up, how could a teacher get to the safe, unlock it, unlock the bullets, load the gun and get to the gunman in time? Not a feasible scenario. Not to mention how a lockdown actually works.
At least at my campus, during a lockdown, teachers quickly get all students inside a classroom, doors are locked, all cells phones and computers are turned off and we wait. Nobody leaves the room until a police officer unlocks the door and instructs us to go. Nobody. We are warned that if we are in the hall or walking around campus, the police will consider us a possible perpetrator and will “take us down”. Here’s my question: If there is a lockdown, who is going to take care of the armed teacher’s students? And why would the police not shoot the teacher, who is both roaming around, and armed?? There were armed school police at Columbine High School. We know how that ended. It won’t work.
I’m not sure what will work, but it will have to be a balancing act, between the right to own a gun, the right to privacy, the right to protect your family and property, and the right to feel safe in public and at home. Those with mental illness or tendencies toward violence should not have their 2nd Amendment rights summarily overturned, on the chance they “might” do something. They also cannot be forced to accept and undergo treatment, if they are adults. And not all shooters are mentally ill. That, too is a myth, to make them seem “other”, and not like us. There is so much to consider.
Universal background checks seem sensible and legal. The majority of Americans support this idea. Poll after poll tells us that, despite what LaPierre says on the news. It’s a place to start.
Our rights to life and liberty are at least as important as the 2nd Amendment right to own a gun. That’s why they are listed first. Having a gun is not the only way to protect those rights. Can we please talk about this? As fellow Americans, who believe the best of each other, and not the worst?