About that time I found a student on campus with a gun
So, this shooting in Colorado has me thinking about the time last year that I found a student in the hall with a gun. It was one of many crazy things that happened in the last year, and I got so distracted by the other things happening that I didn’t really write or think much about it after the fact, but I think it might be good to capture it now, so here goes…
Last fall, I taught an 8 a.m. composition class, which meant that I was frequently one of the first faculty members on campus at 7:30. I would photocopy my materials for class, take a few minutes to get my thoughts in order, and head to my classroom, usually around the time most students were arriving on campus.
One morning, as I was headed to class at the usual time, I spotted a student walking ahead of me with a gun holstered on his hip. Now, most people who see someone with a gun on campus would probably do the smart thing and run to find security. Not me! I’m a bit of a hothead, and I stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong, mostly because I can’t stand bullies. Bullies – or anyone who takes advantage of people’s trust and/or throws their weight around like an asshole – make me see red. I’m one of those people who would probably throw myself in harm’s way to stop one person from hurting another, just because I can’t stand that. Anyway, stupid me decided to confront the student, so I called out to him.
By the way, he was wearing khaki pants and a golf shirt – no indication that he was anything other than your average suburban college student. The conversation went something like this:
Me: (in very nice, but very firm teacher voice) Hi there. Can I ask you why you’re carrying a gun on campus?
Student: I’m an off-duty cop, so I’m allowed to wear this.
Me: (genuine surprise) Really? Because I teach here and I’ve never heard that.
Student: Yeah, check with security. I’m allowed to carry my sidearm openly when I’m off-duty here.
Me: But I have no indication that you’re a police officer – there’s no badge, nothing to mark you as a cop. You could just be saying that so you could carry a gun around.
Student: Ma’am, if I weren’t a cop and I’m here to do something stupid, I’d have my gun concealed.
Me: Maybe not – maybe you’re an angry cop off-duty and you’re headed to shoot your ex-girlfriend or something and then make a quick getaway. Regardless, if you are a cop, the question isn’t whether you are allowed to carry your weapon, but whether you should do that. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right. Have you ever asked your teacher how he/she feels about having a gun in the classroom?
Student: (getting visibly pissed) Ma’am, my teacher is fine with it.
Me: Really? Are you sure? I would be very upset if you were my student and you walked in armed like that. What if you’re failing my class and I have to have a conversation with you about your failing grades? How can I feel comfortable having that conversation when you’re carrying a gun? You see where I’m going with this?
Student: (starting to walk away from me) I’m legally allowed to carry it, and you should be glad: if someone comes in here to shoot people, I’m here to stop him.
At that point, I let him walk away. I was red in the face and pretty pissed off myself – this kid (he looked really young – like a rookie maybe) was being a cocky jerk wearing his gun like that. I mean, why not put it in his bag or something if he’s so hot to have his gun with him? By wearing it, he’s making it clear that it isn’t about the safety issue, it’s about being a Big Macho Man With A Gun. It is about the visual intimidation of sitting there packing heat like a badass cowboy.
You know what? We have security on campus – we have police who are there expressly for the purpose of keeping us safe. We really don’t need someone to self-designate themselves as Protective Cowboy In the Classroom With a Gun. And also: what if someone gets mad and grabs his gun out of the holster? We’re not safer then. Or what if he does decide to settle a score with an ex, just like this sheriff’s deputy did with his side arm last year, and he uses that gun for violence on campus? We’re not safer then, either. This “more guns make us safer” logic has a LOT of holes, as far as I’m concerned.
And frankly, from my perspective as an instructor, I’m deeply uncomfortable with guns in my classroom. People discuss controversial ideas in my classroom, and I want them to feel like they can be honest and they can feel safe saying what they really think. I want to create a place with a free and fearless exchange of ideas – and you know what? I work pretty hard to cultivate and care for that environment. Someone walking in with a gun acting like a jerk throws a huge wrench into that process. Other students are intimidated and silenced by that, and I as an instructor cannot do my job if I have to fear that my student will decide he’s mad enough at me to pull his gun out during a conversation. Like I said to the student: just because it is legal doesn’t make it right.
Meanwhile, after I calmed down a bit, I realized I should really check out whether or not that student has the right to be on campus with a gun – after all, all I had to go on was his claim that this was so. (Actually I have to credit one of my students who is a veteran who served in Iraq with this decision – he said to me, “how do you know he’s a cop? I’d go check that out – even if he is a hothead cop, somebody should let him know they’re keeping an eye on him.”) I went to the security office, and explained my concerns. Instead of heading out immediately to find the student wandering the halls with a gun, they promised me they’d “talk to him” and get back to me….at some point. You’d think being told there was a student in the halls with a gun who claimed he was law enforcement would make them start jogging out in search of this guy, wouldn’t you? Nope. They seemed to think that I was over-reacting, actually. So, I finally just gave up, completely frustrated, and headed to class to teach. (Worst class I’ve ever taught – I kept worrying I’d hear gunshots the whole time.)
After my morning class, a security guard came to find me to follow up. What followed was a strangely heated exchange – it seemed like Security felt that I was the one they should be concerned about, that I was a bit of an uppity do-gooder that was messing up this whole Guns-At-School Party they had going on. The security guard kept using the phrase, “What you have to understand, ma’am…” before he lectured me about how this was the law and this guy’s gun-toting was “making me safer.” I kept trying to point out that this argument was totally bonkers and that a gun in a classroom is just very wrong and even he, the security guard, should care about students and teachers feeling silenced by firearms, but you know what? He was having none of it. Finally, I thanked him for checking up on it and walked away.
At the time, I didn’t speak out more or write much about this because a lot of other things were going on, and it slipped my mind. But every time there’s a shooting incident, I think about that day. I think about the people who claim that the answer to gun violence is to allow more people to carry concealed weapons, and I worry about a culture that cares less about addressing the mental health needs that clearly underpin these mass killings and more about making sure everyone can have a gun. I mean, frankly, I do actually think we should have some access to weapons to defend ourselves – I recognize what the purpose of the Second Amendment actually was. But surely there’s some more sane and organized way to keep weapons on hand in the event that we need them – like a secured citizen’s militia building we can all access in the event of some kind of coup? Why do we need AKs in our homes? Why have some crazy automatic weapon like that if you’re not planning to use it? And what the hell are you planning to use it for? I’m all for going out and shooting – shooting guns at a range is actually pretty fun – but why do you need to keep that stuff at home? Go and rent their guns to shoot, and then go home to a safe, gun-free zone.
What I suspect is that it isn’t about the guns at all – it is about the right to do whatever the hell you want, regardless of the impact on the world around you. “I want to drive an enormous gas-guzzling car and eat 4000-calorie meals and smoke 4 packs a day and shoot my machine gun in my backyard and never pay my taxes and the government needs to stay the hell out of my business!” – a gross caricature, but that’s what I think is at the heart of it all. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to balance your rights as an individual with the needs of the larger community and sometimes you need to put the health of your community first. That’s what things like the Ten Commandments were intended to do – to say, hey, guess what! You can’t go rampaging across the land, killing people. Killing is bad. No more killing. And if the crazy gun culture contributes to an atmosphere which makes it much easier to walk into a movie theater and shoot up the place, it might be time for some individuals to sacrifice a little of their freedom to own semi-automatic weapons to make kids at movies safer, you know?