Teachers Are Not Soldiers
Or, why I didn't buy a gun after our campus shooting
Last week, I published a conversation with an old friend about the possibilities for curbing gun violence following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, an incident that left 17 teachers and students dead. Many other students, despite being wounded and traumatized, have stepped forward to lead a social movement to curb gun violence that has encouraged corporations like Delta Airlines and Hertz to stop offering discounts to NRA members. Dick’s Sporting Goods has pulled assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines off the shelves and from its website, (a move pioneered by Walmart in 2015, when that corporation stopped selling handguns and high capacity magazines) and has announced a new policy of restricting gun sales to people over the age of 21.
Another solution, one that has been proposed repeatedly, is to put more guns in schools, a move overwhelmingly rejected by the National Education Association. Back in 2009, my colleagues and I experienced a campus shooting too: a Wesleyan University student was murdered at point-blank range. Below, I discuss the reasons why I decided not to buy a gun.
A version of this essay was originally published at The Chronicle of Higher Education on December 17, 2012.
In only a matter of a few decades, the National Rifle Association has managed to persuade the American policy apparatus that the only answer to rampant gun violence is for innocent civilians to be armed themselves. Recently, Jeffrey Goldberg argued in The Atlantic that gun control has become just another liberal utopian fantasy — like welfare, good public education, and affordable housing — waiting to expire in the face of new realities. In an article so full of bad research and logical fallacies that I don’t
understand why James Bennet allowed it to be printed know where to begin the critique, Goldberg maintained that because “it’s too late” to retract the millions of guns already in circulation, it’s time for the rest of us to lock n’ load:
When even anti-gun activists believe that the debate over private gun ownership is closed; when it is too late to reduce the number of guns in private hands—and since only the naive think that legislation will prevent more than a modest number of the criminally minded, and the mentally deranged, from acquiring a gun in a country absolutely inundated with weapons—could it be that an effective way to combat guns is with more guns?
When I heard about the shooting in Sandy Hook, I had just finished reading Goldberg’s stupid and enraging piece. I was in an Internet-free zone for the weekend, and only got scraps of information about this latest episode of unimaginable public violence on my cell phone. As it turns out, I was just as well informed about this tragic event as anyone who was online or watching TV. I am not the first person to observe that what constitutes “news” about mass shootings in our contemporary media is not reporting at all, but a few scraps of information, and frequently misinformation, that are recirculated about every ninety seconds.
So because I knew nothing, except that this had occurred in a small town near my old rowing club that I had driven through multiple times to get to I-84, what I thought about was the campus shooting I experienced on May 7 2009. On that day, a young woman at Zenith was gunned down in front of her friends at the campus bookstore by a man who had stalked and threatened her for several years.
And on that day, the campus went into, as we say now, “lockdown.” We had very little information about what had happened, or what might happen next. My office was in a small building: we locked all the doors and gathered upstairs. I, at least, was well aware that if the gunman proceeded up the hill towards the main campus, ours would be the first building he got to. As we waited, for hours, I turned different scenarios over in my mind. Most of them had to do with running away: how thick was the front door? If the gunman entered our building, could we all escape in good order through the back? And as Director of the Center, would it not be my moral duty to help everyone else get out in front of me, be the last to leave, and assume the greatest risk? How courageous was I?
In case you have never had this experience, and I hope you don’t, these are the kind of things you think about as you are waiting to find out if you are going to die. After a bit, my co-teacher, a young postdoc, and I quietly confided to each other our worst fear: that the shooter was one of our students, a young man I will call Jack. Jack’s eccentricities had morphed, week by week, into what both of us believed was a full-blown psychosis, complete with a series of incidents that were troubling to us and to other students.
And yet it was hard to prove to others that we were right to be worried about Jack. Attention-getting or eccentric behavior at small liberal arts colleges is often hard to read, and the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims, than the perpetrators, of violence. For example, one day Jack had shown up fully and expertly decked out in a dress, high heels, and full make-up: I had assumed he was someone’s parent until my co-teacher pointed out that it was actually Jack. Perhaps at Brigham Young University this would trigger concern, but at Zenith, which has a large and very political transgender population, a student who appears to be cross dressing might, in fact, not be cross dressing, if you know what I mean. You would want to leave them alone about it or be supportive unless — as was the case with Jack — there was other difficult evidence on the table that seemed to point to a deteriorating emotional state.
So back to the shooting. Suddenly, the front doorbell rang: we looked out the window and — it was Jack. What to do? If he was the shooter, could we keep him out? If he was not the shooter, he was in danger, and as his teachers, we had a moral obligation to help him. What if, floridly psychotic or not, murderer or not, he had come to us for help?
Much as I loath any further militarization of the school environment, I will never forget the guy in the bunker with me that day, my co-teacher, who was about to be married, and who insisted on accompanying me to the front door to greet Jack.
I would now like to interrupt this story to say: this is the part where the NRA, the armaments industry and their political minions would say, “Wouldn’t you have felt better if you had had a Glock?”
The easy answer is, of course I would have! Kinda sorta. I have an old college friend who is African-American, and who has several loaded semi-automatic weapons in each of his homes. He grew up in rural Louisiana under segregation, and had acquired the habit of having guns as a young man. It made a lot of sense in those days because, as he pointed out, “white people were always trying to kill us!” That wasn’t a paranoid fantasy in the 1960s: it was true, as the empirical evidence of history (not GOP post-racial fantasyland) demonstrates. Later, when he became a celebrity athlete, he also became the object of property vandalism and death threats in New Jersey, and having guns in the house continued to make sense to him.
As my friend talked me down out of a mental tree the day after our campus shooting, he offered to help me buy a weapon that suited me, take me to a range to learn to use it well, and help me through the permit process.
“All you have to do is make an argument that you are in a dangerous profession,” he said. “And it isn’t hard to make that argument about teaching now.”
No, it really isn’t, as the many teachers who have died defending their students demonstrates. An event like this should make any sane American wake up and say that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with the decisions we have made as a society to allow murderous weapons to flow freely and unsecured through our communities. By not taking guns seriously as instruments of death that can be turned to any purpose for any reason, we have created the possibility for anyone, of any age, to arm themselves like the Taliban and act like the Taliban does. Schools have been a primary site for such violence.
Gun supporters then tell teachers that everything would have turned out better if only they too were armed and prepared to shoot either an intruder or, as is more likely, their own student. But I don’t believe it, and I kindly refused my friend’s offer to arm me. Teachers are not soldiers. When my colleague and I opened the door to Jack on that terrible day in May, when at least one of our students had already been killed, we did so on the assumption that, as teachers, our first duty was to protect him if he was in danger. Even though we were afraid of him.
As it turned out Jack was in danger, knew nothing about the murder or the lockdown, and had come to turn in a late paper. The actual shooter was nowhere to be found and, as it turned out later, had had elaborate plans to make his way to campus and shoot everyone who he thought was Jewish, plans that were derailed by the first responders who had scrambled to the scene. Jack would have been a likely target. My colleague and I invited Jack in, and when he declined, we urged him to return to his dormitory by the fastest possible route. Later in the semester, we were also able to help persuade him to enter a treatment program for his mental illness.
Imagine if, because of our uncertainty about what was wrong with Jack or what it meant, we had greeted our innocent student — already laboring under great emotional strain — with a couple of handguns in the face. Imagine, worse, if there had been a second, inadvertent, killing that day because we misread his fear, anger or confusion as aggression. Veteran police officers, well trained as they are, make this mistake with far too great a frequency in the city I now live in. Historically, and in our current wars, so do soldiers.
In fact, the only way that being armed could have absolutely preserved our safety at that moment would have been to presume that Jack was a potential enemy combatant, and either kill or disable him from an upstairs window, an unspeakable crime.
This is why, in a democratic society, only police and soldiers, not individual citizens, are authorized to make such a decision — as well as the mistakes that may follow from it. Killing another human being is a grave moral responsibility that the rest of us cannot, I think, fully comprehend, either as the daily civic burden that it is or as the haunting memories such shootings become, lasting a lifetime for some.
But teachers are not soldiers, nor do the vast majority of us want to be soldiers. Could we ever train teachers and other school personnel as well as we would need to in order to create the campus Minutemen that the NRA imagines? Realistically, can we create an armed line of defense between our students and these peculiar Rambos who want to kill us for reasons none of us truly understand?
I don’t think so.
However, there is more at stake than whether giving the “good guys” more guns would work. The ethical and moral question at stake is: do we want to give over every space we have — our homes, churches, community centers, hospitals and schools — over to violence? Do we want to make every caretaker — every parent, minister, teacher, coach, nurse, Scout leader — into a potential soldier? I say no. And it’s time to tell the NRA, the multi-billion dollar arms business and the government that we refuse the escalation of violence.
Politicians, listen up: teachers are not soldiers.
Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.