Arts, sciences, and… guns?

by David Alm on February 27, 2011

From MyTucson.us

In the wake of January’s shooting just outside Tucson, Arizona, lawmakers in that state are trying to push three bills through the legislature that would allow professors and students over 21 to carry guns on the state’ s college campu ses. The rationale, of course, is that people should be prepared to defend themselves the next time a deranged and troubled person decides to open fire on an unsuspecting crowd.

I’ve written about gun control issues in the past, and gotten into some hot water with staunch advocates of gun ownership. This is not a topic that people take lightly, and for good reason: for some, guns equate barbarism, while their proponents view them as symbols of a uniquely American freedom.

And not all advocates of gun ownership fit the stereotype that liberals often imagine, that of a redneck spitting chaw out the window of his Ford pickup truck. Some are downright smart, and their arguments can be pretty compelling. The journalist Dan Baum, for example, wrote about* why he carries a gun for Harper’s last year — not the first place you’d imagine such an article to be found.

Regardless of your position, what better opportunity could we ask for to parse out the academic arguments for and against gun ownership than the suggestion that we allow guns in academic environments?

It’s reminiscent of the controversy that erupted in June of 2009, when a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky urged his congregation to bring their guns to church. Ken Pagano, an Assembly of God minister at the New Bethel Church there, delivered a sermon two weeks prior titled “God, Guns, Gospel, and Geometry,” arguing that not all Christian denominations are pacifist. Some Christians begged to differ then, and plenty of academics are equally opposed now. Indeed, the University of Arizona, Arizona State, and Northern Arizona University have all expressed opposition to the bills. But gun lobbyists — who carry a lot of power in Arizona (no pun intended) — aren’t fazed.

In an academic environment, dedicated to the pursuit and creation of knowledge, how can anyone justify something as ana thema to that as packing heat ? Academia is where ideas are discussed, debated, and analyzed. Can free and open discourse exist where firearms rest beside books ?

*This link will take you to a Website that contains a link to a PDF of the article, which I have tested and confirmed as safe.

Eric Alm February 28, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I believe the threat of force negates free speech, and thus weapons and higher education are irreconcilable. One cannot learn under duress. Pragmatically speaking, I wonder how many gun-toting eighteen year olds would have the presence of mind, not to mention the aim, to take down a rampaging shooter. It’s a bad idea all around.

David Alm February 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Thanks, Eric. I hadn’t even thought of the unlikelihood of an armed teenager defending him- or herself with any success. But you’re even more right about learning under duress. It’s impossible — or so I believe.

Eric Alm March 1, 2011 at 6:57 am

Perhaps a little more to the point is that force and freedom of thought are irreconcilable. Critical thinking cannot be forced, and the existence of force, whether overt or implied, makes a classroom into an environment of intimidation. I understand the desire to find ways to help students and their teachers defend themselves, but I’m not convinced giving them guns is going to help. We need better assessment strategies for mental disturbance, more resources for those affected, and most of all, we need to address the underlying social structures that help create teenage shooters.

David Pavesic March 1, 2011 at 7:11 am

I remember a history class in college. The professor’s area of expertise was the lead up to WWI and the arms race that engulfed and in a large part triggered the war. He explained how the build up of weapons, and the parallel development of relationships based on fear and distrust between the countries led to the war, and in doing so he used a rather ironic illustration.
He said, as I look out at all of you today, I am worried. There are many of you, and only one of me. So to feel more secure and to tell myself that I am safe, I bring a handgun to class. I place it out on the desk so all of you know that I am not afraid of you. However, you are now wondering what I might do with that gun, and now you are afraid, so many of you bring a gun the next class period. I notice all of your guns, so I will bring a shotgun. You then bring machine guns. I bring more guns, you bring more guns. All the while we spend all of our time wondering what everyone else is thinking, making sure no one else gets the drop on you.
Then one day, someone has a bad day and yelling, pulls out their gun.
Or someone merely drops their’s and it goes off.
Everyone is armed to the teeth. They are waiting for something to happen and, in fact, are looking for something to happen.
I wonder how prescient his comments about the games countries played would be about heavily armed students?

David Alm March 1, 2011 at 7:16 am

David — That is a chilling and all-too-apt description of exactly what this law could wind up creating. The mere fact that it was presented as an academic point, to inspire thought, makes it even more-so. Such thought would be impossible in an environment that like that he described, and I can only assume that the project of education would grind to a halt.

Katie March 1, 2011 at 9:30 am

As the wife of a college professor (in Texas) the thought of his students and other students on campus being armed terrifies me, largely on the safety grounds that have already been described (poor aim and poor judgment). I honestly am not as concerned about any chilling effect on classroom dialogue, although some surveys of students on these campuses might be intresting. I do feel, however, that students and faculty learn and teach best in an environment in which they feel completely safe. I believe that this is a weapons-free environment.

David Alm March 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Thanks, Katie. The feeling of safety is a key point. As an adjunct professor myself, I’m often taken aback by just how young first-year college students can seem. They’re dealing with enough as it is; guns would most certainly add anxiety to the mix. Even among older students and professors, their presence would certainly not help anything.

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