Guns on campus: there will be no artist or doctor once the trigger is pulled

The possibility of a gun in a classroom may lead to fear in a learning environment JAM Project/ Flickr, CC BY-SA

As a rational academic, living in one of the most conservative states, where legislators are planning to allow firearms in virtually all public places, including the University of Wyoming, I have labored to understand my own deep antipathy to the idea of my students and colleagues being armed.

Gun advocates and opponents can each fire off statistics; however, the debate will not be resolved with data when the fundamental conflict is a matter of ideals. I could dredge up statistics about the frequency of gun accidents, while advocates could offer numbers showing that people with concealed gun permits rarely shoot innocent bystanders.

But dueling spreadsheets fail to get to the heart of the issue. Rather, my resistance to a well-regulated militia crossing the quad between classes is rooted in non-quantifiable principles.

Fear undermines classroom learning environment

The proliferation of virtual courses notwithstanding, the soul of a university remains its classrooms. These are the places of genuine human engagement, debate, thought, and passion. Students must come prepared -— ready to learn (by having done the reading), ready to argue (by thinking critically about ideas), and ready to change (by cultivating intellectual humility).

Here they are tested and challenged. This is where they flounder and flourish. Arming students seems inimical to learning. The presence, even the possibility, of a loaded weapon casts a pall over classroom discussion.

Arming students is inimical to learning as classrooms are meant to provide a safe space for intellectual growth. K W Reinsch/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Fear undermines the openness and vulnerability necessary for learning. When getting ready for class means preparing to die (or to kill), an academic community has failed.

I remember going back home to Albuquerque – a city with a violent and property crime rate well above the national average– for Christmas when our kids were little to find that my parents had installed burglar bars in their windows. I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness that the city of my youth had failed so miserably that the people barricaded their homes.

Universities are meant to be safe spaces

My parents were free to live behind bars to protect their property, and the legislature wants to free me to arm myself in the classroom to guard my life. Somehow, these don’t feel like liberties. I want to work at a university that is big enough to provide students with a hundred opportunities and small enough to notice one anguished student.

Maybe I’m safer if a student in my seminar is carrying a gun. For that matter, maybe I’d be safer if I wore a Kevlar vest while lecturing. But I don’t want to teach where we prepare to shoot and be shot. I don’t want to be a part of failure. In all likelihood, no armed student will take (or save) my life. But the same cannot be said of that student’s life.

Suicide rates are already high

Suicide rates on college campuses are appalling. I said that numbers wouldn’t resolve the issue, but the fact is that suicide rates among young adults has tripled since the 1950s, having become the second most common cause of death among college students. Given current statistics, the University of Wyoming with an enrollment of 14,000 can expect at least two thousand of these students to contemplate suicide, two hundred to make an attempt, and perhaps two to succeed.

I was the first person to arrive on the scene of two suicide attempts when I was in college. I mopped up a lot of blood, but razor blades are not all that effective. Guns work much better. Filled with shame, my friends asked me to hide the evidence and lie in the emergency room. I did.

They were both extremely intelligent young men. But laboring under enormous stress and failed relationships, on a dark, lonely night, collapsed into a moment of utter despair. Lonely but not alone -— nearly half of all university students report symptoms of depression.

Enough of the numbers. Consider this simple statement from a college athlete who was battling depression: “If I’d had a gun, I’d have probably put a bullet in my head.”

Campus grounds are not for killing or being killed

Perhaps my perspective is darkened by experience, but my deepest fear is not that a student with a gun comes to my classroom in the morning, but that the student leaves his dorm room in a body bag that evening.

Campuses are places fraught with doubt, conflict, angst, disorientation, and drama. A university education is not easy intellectually -— or existentially. College is where assumptions die, identities expire, and beliefs perish. But this should not become a place where students come to kill or be killed.

A university should be where the dying dream of being an engineer is resurrected as a graphic artist, where an identity as a straight Christian gives way to being a gay ethicist, and where the parental narrative of being a biology teacher is reborn as a student’s own aspiration of becoming a doctor.

But once the trigger is pulled, there will be no artist, philosopher, or doctor. Maybe I’m an idealist, but how else does one avoid cynicism and fatalism? If we aren’t willing to imagine and risk, then there’s no “good fight” left in the professoriate. An academic life worth living requires courage, hope, defiance and compassion. It does not require guns.

The issue of guns on American campuses is a subject of vigorous debate. By 2013, at least 19 states had introduced legislation to allow guns on campus. Seven states now allow concealed weapons on campus. We carry here both sides of the debate. Today, we are carrying this article opposing concealed weapons on campuses. Later this week, we will be carrying another article arguing in favour of guns on campus.