A Teacher’s Stance on Gun Violence Cait Etherington Education, Politics & Economics Cross-posted from ToBecomeATeacher.org Introduction American educators are standing up in growing numbers to express their outrage about gun violence and demand tighter gun control laws. The nation’s teachers refuse to see their classrooms turned into a battlefield by the NRA and the gun lobby, and they refuse to put their students and the nation’s future at risk. Since January 1, 2015, there have been at least 23 reported shootings on US campuses. The most devastating shooting took place on October 1 at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon and left 9 dead and another 9 injured. Among the dead were students ranging in age from eighteen to fifty-nine and an amicable English professor. Naturally, people across the nation were shocked and outraged by the campus massacre in Oregon, but like other recent school and campus shootings, the incident also elicited a highly polarized response. While many Americans responded to the Umpqua Community College shooting by calling for tighter gun control laws, especially on campus, others argued that the incident underscores the fact that Americans need to be armed, even in classrooms. From established organizations like the National Rifle Association to newcomers like Students for Concealed Carry, a growing number of Americans are calling for legislative changes that will permit adult-age students and educators to carry concealed weapons while at school or work. In a 2013 poll carried out by the National Education Association, however, an overwhelming majority of educators polled (78%) indicated that they do not support the idea of arming educators in the classroom. As Dr. Carole Emberton, an Associate Professor of American History at the University of Buffalo, points out, the lobby to permit concealed weapons in educational settings is both a recent and unprecedented phenomenon. “The lobby has arisen very recently in the wake of the various school shootings,” explains Dr. Emberton (i). She further observes that the current lobby shares little in common with earlier lobbies in support of carry laws. “Questions of personal safety are not new by any means—you can see similar arguments made back in the mid-1800s when the first anti-concealed carry laws were passed,” she explains, “but I’ve never encountered anyone in the past arguing that teachers and students should be armed because the school space is especially vulnerable. Those early cases had to do with lone travelers on the open road who were vulnerable to robbers. In some sense, those were issues of frontier life where there was basically no police presence—not suburban educational spaces” (ii). There is no question that educators, school administrators, students and parents are deeply concerned about violence in schools and on the nation’s college and university campuses. This article explores why guns and education never mix and how educators can come together to ensure guns don’t become a mainstay in schools and on campuses across the nation. The History of School Gun Violence The issue of gun violence in schools and on college and university campuses can’t be fully understood or addressed without first considering the history of school and campus shootings. In the United States, this history is nearly as long as the nation’s education system, but it is important to emphasize that massacres in schools and on postsecondary campuses are a very recent phenomenon. From the nineteenth century onwards, there are reports of gun violence in school classrooms. In 1853 in Louisville, Kentucky, student Matthew Ward brought a self-cocking pistol to school and killed his schoolmaster. The shooting was a revenge killing against the schoolmaster who had excessively punished his younger brother the day before (iii). Similar revenge killings happened throughout the century. Notably, in nearly all of reported early incidents of school gun violence, the motive for the shootings was obvious. Indeed, most early school shootings arguably had as much to do with guns as they did with the misguided disciplinary tactics of nineteenth-century teachers—most of whom had little or no formal training before being assigned to teach dozens of children in what were often over crowded and ill-equipped schools. The only notable exception to this pattern was the first known mass shooting, which took place in Newburgh, New York in 1891. In this case, a 70-year old man opened fire on a group of children in a school playground. While no students were killed, the New York Times reported that several students “were well filled with lead” (iv). Although there are scattered reports of gun violence on college and university campuses in the early twentieth century, the first massacre on a campus did not occur until the mid 1960s when ex-Marine and engineering student Charles Whitman ascended the University of Texas Tower armed with three rifles, two pistols, and a sawed-off shotgun and started taking fire on the pedestrians below with astonishing precision. Bob Higley, who was a junior on campus at the time of the massacre, shared his thoughts in a 2006 oral history, recalling, “He was killing indiscriminately, aiming wherever he saw targets” (v). Following the incident, the idea that a massacre could happen in a school or on a college or university campus was something that loomed in Americans’ minds, but the scale of the University of Texas massacre would not be repeated again until 1999 when two young men opened fire at Columbine High School in Colorado, ultimately leaving 12 students and 1 teacher dead, another 21 seriously wounded, and 3 others injured while escaping the school. The massacre was not only notable for its scale. The incident was also captured on the school’s surveillance cameras—a circumstance that would ultimately make it the most widely witnessed massacre in the nation’s history. What eventually came to be known as the Columbine High School Massacre, however, may have been most unique in its outcome. Following the incident, copycat incidents and plans for copycat incidents ensued. Now widely known as the “Columbine effect,” (vi) some critics have charged that the copycat incidents were largely the result of the widespread media coverage that followed the massacre—coverage that was greatly enhanced by the recirculation of footage captured on the school’s surveillance cameras. A recent investigative report published in Mother Jones Magazine found “at least 74 plots and attacks across 30 states in which suspects and perpetrators claimed to have been inspired by the nation’s worst high school massacre” (vii). In some cases, the suspects were far too young to have had any firsthand memories of the Columbine High School Massacre. Post Columbine Shootings Following Columbine, the number of shootings carried out by “active shooters”— defined by the FBI as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area” (viii)— skyrocketed across the United States both in and outside of educational settings. Until recently, however, despite a strong perception that active shooter incidents have been on the rise since 1999, there was no clear evidence to support this conclusion. In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the Obama administration commissioned an investigation on active shooters. Less than a year later, the FBI released the results in an unclassified report, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013. The report relied on evidence from 160 active shooter incidents that occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Only active shooter incidents and not other types of gun violence (e.g., gang shootings and drug related shootings) were analyzed. Below is a list of just some of the study’s key findings: 160 active shooter incidents occurred between 2000 and 2013 leaving 486 dead and 557 wounded. There were an average of 11.4 incidents annually with an increasing trend; an average of 6.4 incidents occurred in the first 7 years examined and an average of 16.4 incidents occurred in the last 7 years examined. Active shootings are a nationwide problem; between 2000 and 2013 active shooter incidents occurred 40 of 50 states and the District of Columbia Other key findings from A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 focus specifically on active shooter incidents in institutes of higher education and schools: 4% of the incidents occurred in an educational setting; educational settings were found to be the second most common site of active shooter incidents (only commercial/business sites were more common). The active shooter incidents with the highest number of casualties both occurred in educational settings; in 2007, 32 were killed and 17 wounded in a shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia and in 2012, 27 were killed and 2 wounded at Sandy Hook Elementary School and in a nearby residence in Newtown, Connecticut. Between 2000 and 2013, 12 active shooter incidents occurred in institutes of higher education, leaving 60 dead and 60 wounded. Of the incidents that took place on college and university campuses, 2 of the shooters were female, the rest of the shooters were male; they ranged in age from 18 to 62. Between 2000 and 2013, there were 25 active shooter incidents in schools (defined here as preK to 12 institutions) and 2 incidents that occurred during school board meetings; the incidents left 57 individuals killed and 60 individuals wounded. Of the incidents that took place in schools, 14 occurred in a high school, 6 occurred in a middle school or junior high school, 4 occurred in an elementary school, and 1 occurred at a school comprising grades PreK to12. More than half (51.9%) of the active shooter incidents reported in schools took place in school classrooms or hallways. In a majority of high school and middle school active shooter incidents, the shooter was a student at the school. In 11 incidents, unarmed principals, teachers, other school staff and students confronted shooters in order to end the threat (ix). Arguments Supporting Concealed Carry Laws on Campus As already noted, arguments supporting the right to carry concealed weapons on college and university campuses are relatively new, have arisen primarily since the rise of active shooter incidents in a post-Columbine era, and usually follow along one or more of the following three lines. Concealed Carry is a Second Amendment Right First, many pro-concealed carry advocates maintain that since Americans already have a right to carry concealed weapons across the United States (at least under specific circumstances), there is no reason why educational settings should be an exception to the rule. The law repeatedly cited to support this line of argument is the Second Amendment, which reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” While one may argue that the Second Amendment should not apply to individuals, in recent years, the Second Amendment has been interpreted as applicable to individuals. Most notably, in 2001 a panel of judges in the United States Court of Appeals ruled that the Second Amendment does protect the right of individuals, including those not in a militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms. The ruling, commonly known as the United States v. Emerson, overturned an interpretation of the Second Amendment that had been in place for decades. Subsequent challenges over the past decade have upheld the ruling. In 2008, for example, the District of Columbia v. Heller (07-290) ruled 5 to 4 that the Second Amendment did in fact establish an individual right for US citizens to possess firearms and subsequently, struck down a D.C. ban on handguns. In 2010, McDonald v. City of Chicago (08-1521) further strengthened this recent interpretation of the Second Amendment. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court ruled that the Second Amendment applies to states through the Incorporation Doctrine. More recently, a growing number of states have harnessed the momentum of these rulings to introduce campus carry laws, including Senate Bill 11 in Texas. Being Armed Saves Lives The second common pro-concealed carry law argument rests on the conviction that concealed carry laws are necessary because as gun violence escalates, even in educational settings, Americans need to be able to defend themselves. But does being armed help in the case of an active shooter—someone intent on killing and injuring as many people as possible in a public setting? The FBI’s 2013 investigation, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013, reports that in only 5 incidents (3.1%) was “the shooting ended after armed individuals who were not law enforcement personnel exchanged gunfire with the shooters.” The assumption that armed civilians necessarily save lives is further challenged by current research on the effectiveness of armed versus unarmed police forces. A recent study by Thomas J. Aveni for The Police Policy Studies Council concluded that there is little conclusive evidence to support the assumption that armed police officers are effective when attempting to end confrontations with the use of a firearm. Indeed, Aveni observes that NYPD data suggests that “hit probabilities,” especially when assailants are in close range, is “dismally low.” While it may be impossible for Americans to even fathom unarmed police officers, in many countries around the world, unarmed police officers are the norm. In the United Kingdom, for example, the vast majority of police officers do not carry guns. Those who do carry guns are carefully selected, undergo additional training, and typically only carry guns under specific circumstances. Even more surprising, however, is the fact that a majority of British police officers do not even want to be armed on the job, maintaining that an armed police force would simply breed more gun-related violence. People not Pistols are the Problem Many pro-concealed carry advocates argue the problem of gun violence in schools and on campuses is about people not pistols and perhaps most notably, it is about certain kinds of people in certain contexts. While the specific causes vary depending on who you talk to, this faction of the pro-concealed carry lobby usually points to a few common culprits. Proponents of this argument maintain that repeated exposure to violent imagery desensitizes one to real world violence. As a result, it is no surprise that following active shooter incidents, one of the first things exposed in the media is typically a list of video games played by the shooter and films he or she has recently streamed online. While some studies suggest a possible correlation (xi), many others have found no correlation between violent representations in video games or on films and criminal behavior (xii). Indeed, a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, ultimately concluded that research was too inclusive to restrict the sale and rental of violent video games to minors without violating minors’ First Amendment rights. Another central line of argument regarding gun ownership and violence places the blame on broader social problems—namely, gangs and drugs. Conveniently, since the gangs and drug issue tends to be concentrated in urban centers, often in poor inner-city neighborhoods that are home to high numbers of visible minorities, blaming gun violence on gang activity and drugs is a way for the mostly white and rural gun-lobby to displace responsibility for gun violence. It is worth noting, however, that when it comes to active shooter incidents, which account for the vast majority of school and campus shootings, gangs and drugs have not been identified as a factor nor is there any indication that race or location play a factor in one’s likelihood to engage in an active shooting in a school or on a campus. In addition to the popular lines of arguments focusing on media representations, video games, gangs and drugs, some critics maintain that that the cause of gun violence is purely psychological rather than social—the wrongdoing of a small minority of people with mental health issues. Indeed, this is precisely the thinking underpinning the idea of the so-called “Columbine Syndrome.” While not recognized by the American Psychology Association, over the past decade, the term (possibly coined in Judith Warner’s 2007 New York Times column) has increasingly been used as shorthand to link a series of mental health issues in children and young adults to possibly violent behaviors. As Warner reported at the time, one study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Services reported that “Eighty-one percent of respondents said they thought children with major depression would be dangerous to themselves or others; 33 percent said they believed children with A.D.H.D. were likely to be dangerous” (iv). In reality, like the popular perception that everything from violent action films to first-person shooter games are directly linked to gun violence, there is little evidence to support the perception that mental illness and gun violence are linked. A 2015 study by Dr. Jonathan M. Metzi and Dr. Kenneth T. MacLeish published in the American Journal of Public Health emphasizes, “Surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes … Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, show that fewer than 5% of the 120 000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness”(xiv). Arguments Against Concealed Carry Laws on Campus Like the pro-gun lobby, the anti-gun lobby’s case pivots on just a few key arguments. Schools and Campuses Are Not the Militia First and foremost, supporters of stricter gun regulations across the nation maintain that pro-gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is simply incorrect. Until very recently, they were right to draw this conclusion. However, since United States v. Emerson, which overturned a longstanding interpretation of the Second Amendment and asserted that the Second Amendment does apply to individuals, this line of argument has lost considerable ground. Gun Violence is Lower in Nations with Strict Gun Controls Another major line of argument for anti-gun lobbyist and one that carries far more weight—especially in a post-United States v. Emerson era—is a comparative argument. Looking both north of the border to Canada and to other nations around their world with strict gun control laws and notably lower violent crime rates, the argument maintains that there is an obvious link between a nation’s gun control laws and rates of death and injury from gun-related accidents and violent acts. To support the argument, gun-related deaths in countries with tight gun controls are typically compared to gun-related deaths in the United States, and the statistics are compelling. The Council on Foreign Relations, a US based think tank specializing in US foreign policy and international affairs, reports that both gun ownership and gun deaths are substantially higher in the US than they are in countries with tight gun control laws and lower levels of gun ownership. Firearms Per 100 People Firearm Homicides Per 100,000 People US 88.8 3.21 Norway 31.3 0.05 Canada 30.8 0.51 Australia 15 0.14 Israel 7.3 0.09 UK 6.2 0.07 Japan 0.6 0.01 Source: Council of Foreign Relations According to the above survey, people in the United States are more than twice as likely to own a firearm than their northern neighbors but more than six times as likely to be killed in a firearm related homicide. Even more notable are the statistics from Japan—the nation with the strictest gun control laws in the world. In Japan, less than 1 and 100 people own a firearm and the homicide rate from firearms is only 0.01 per 100,000 people compared to the US’s rate of 3.21 per 100,000 people. Faced with such statistics, it is difficult to deny that there is a strong correlation between the firearm ownership and firearm homicides. Right to Carry—American Law or American Mythology? As suggested above, while most supporters of right-to-carry laws cite the Second Amendment as support for their cause, some critics question whether the right to carry lobby has as much to do with American mythology as it does with American law. Dr. Scott Melzer, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan and the author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, observes that in order to fully understand the gun lobby, one also needs to appreciate the place of guns in American history and culture. “The NRA promotes a frontier masculinity that celebrates older, mythologized images of manhood: self-reliant, independent men who can protect and support themselves and their families,” explains Dr. Melzer, adding, “These ideas resonate in our culture, which values individualism” (xvi). However, he further observes that these values are not politically neutral, even if they are quintessentially American: Conservatives and libertarians are most likely to gravitate to NRA messages suggesting guns and gun rights promote self-reliance and independence from law enforcement and the government. This is why the NRA is arguably the key social movement organization in conservative politics. The NRA frames gun rights as the ultimate source of American freedoms; without these, they argue, all other individual rights and freedoms will be lost (xvii). In this respect, the gun debate is about more than guns—it is also about what it means to be American, and perhaps, most notably, what it means to be an American man. As Dr. Melzer suggests, “American manhood is changing, but quite slowly, certainly in comparison to the pace of change for American womanhood. Many masculine stereotypes that immediately come to mind—to be tough, strong, in control, stoic, a breadwinner, and so forth—seem antiquated, yet most persist as American manhood ideals. I think that gun ownership and carrying guns may be avenues through which men attempt to demonstrate some of these ideals (toughness, self-reliance, being in control)” (xviii). But was the Wild West as wild or as violent as many people believe? Dr. Melzer argues that for the most part, even our cultural memory of the Frontier is a myth: “The extent of gun ownership and especially gun violence during the ‘Wild West’ years is typically wildly exaggerated in popular culture, dating to pulp fiction and TV Westerns.” Dr. Melzer is also quick to point out that in reality, gun ownership rates are in fact declining. “Gun ownership rates, according to General Social Survey data, have been steadily declining, down to one in three households from a high of around half several decades ago,” he explains, and this is in part due to the fact that “Our society is becoming more urban, whereas gun ownership rates are highest among those living in rural areas” (xix). The rural/urban split is clearly apparent when one considers the few places in the United States where the concealed carry lobby is making inroads. Which States Already Permit Concealed Weapons on Campus? When it comes to gun laws, there are notable differences across the country and in some states, even between institutions. Indeed, while some states, such as New York State, prohibit citizens from carrying guns on campus under any circumstances, other states, such as Utah, prohibit college and university administrators from regulating guns on campus. As a result, depending on the state and institution, the laws governing concealed weapons on campus can range from completely restrictive to virtually unregulated. States with legislation banning concealed weapons on campus: Currently, a total of 19 states prohibit concealed weapons on campus. These states include California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming. States that leave the decision to ban or permit concealed weapons up to the college or university: A majority of US states empower colleges and universities to decide who can or cannot carry a concealed weapon on campus and under what conditions; these states include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont. Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. States with provisions that permit the carrying of concealed weapons on college and university campuses: There are currently eight states where provisions are in place to permit the carrying of concealed weapons on campus. These states include Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. It is only in Utah, however, that colleges and universities have no authority to dictate whom, when and where concealed weapons can be carried on campus. As a result, concealed weapons are legal on all of Utah’s college and university campuses. In other states, such as Kansas, colleges and universities can only prohibit the carrying of weapons in buildings that have been deemed to have inadequate security measures. State Concealed Carry Permitted on Postsecondary Campuses Alabama Institution decides Alaska Institution decides Arizona Institution decides Arkansas Institution decides California No Colorado Yes Connecticut Institution decides Delaware Institution decides Florida No Georgia No Hawaii Institution decides Idaho Yes Illinois No Indiana Institution decides Iowa Institution decides Kansas Yes Kentucky Institution decides Louisiana No Maine Institution decides Maryland Institution decides Massachusetts No Michigan No Minnesota Institution decides Mississippi Yes Missouri No Montana Institution decides Nebraska No Nevada No New Hampshire Institution decides New Jersey No New Mexico No New York No North Carolina No North Dakota No Ohio No Oklahoma Institution decides Oregon Yes Pennsylvania Institution decides Rhode Island Institution decides South Carolina No South Dakota Institution decides Tennessee No Texas Yes Utah Yes Vermont Institution decides Virginia Institution decides Washington Institution decides West Virginia Institution decides Wisconsin Yes Wyoming No Do Any Elementary, Middle, or High Schools Permit Concealed Weapons? In 1990, Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which bans guns on K-12 school property and within a 1000-foot radius of these school properties. This, however, does not mean that all K-12 schools and their surrounding areas of are in fact gun-free. Provisions in the Act exempt certain firearms and certain personnel from the Act. As a result, in all US states, school personnel, with authorization from the school principal or superintendent, may carry a firearm on and in the vicinity of K-12 school property under some circumstances. What may come as a surprise, however, is that in a growing number of states, school police and security officers are not the only people permitted by law to be armed. In a 2015 article by Rebekah Elliot published in the Arizona Law Review reported that since the tragic incidents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, the move to arm teachers in the classrooms has gained momentum and in some cases been entrenched in state laws. To date, 34 states have introduced more than 80 bills with language focused on arming teachers and/or administrators in K–12 public schools. Elliot further reports that: Five of these states, including Kansas and South Dakota, enacted laws expanding educators’ ability to arm themselves. Kansas enacted legislation that permits school districts to allow licensed employees to carry concealed handguns on school grounds. South Dakota enacted legislation ‘authorizing school boards to create, establish, and supervise individual school sentinel programs to promote school safety.’ In addition to authorizing the arming of school employees, the South Dakota sentinel program is unique in that it also allows school districts to utilize armed volunteers as a means to enhance school safety (xx). Finally, Elliot observes that in states without legislation, some school districts have also moved to arm teachers. In Arkansas, for example, “school districts are arming teachers through loopholes in existing concealed-weapons laws.” To date, she reports, “Thirteen school districts have obtained permission to use rules designed for private security firms to arm teachers on school grounds” (xxi). Among other arguments, proponents of teachers’ right-to-carry laws maintain that arming teachers is considerably less expensive than hiring additional school security personnel. However, as Elliot observes, allowing teachers to be armed while at work may result in other costs, including higher insurance costs. What do elementary, middle school and high school educators think of the plan to permit teachers to carry concealed weapons while at work? A 2013 survey by the National Education Association found that nearly all of its members polled want safer schools and 64% of its members support stricter gun controls in general. While a minority of members (22%) “favor a proposal to allow teachers and other school employees to receive firearms training and allow them to carry firearms in schools,” the vast majority (78%) oppose the idea (xxii). Is Gun Violence a Problem on Campuses Outside the United States? School shootings are far less common outside the United States, especially in countries with strict gun-control laws, such as Canada and Japan. In Canada, for example, firearm ownership, even in rural and remote communities, remains much lower than it does in similar communities in the United States. Accordingly, the nation also has a significantly lower rate of gun-rated violence, including in schools and on campus. Nevertheless, school and campus shootings have been reported. The most devastating school shooting took place on December 6, 1989 when a young man walked into a classroom at the École Polytechnique (the school of engineering at the University of Montreal), asked all the men in a classroom to leave, and opened fire on the remaining women. By the end of what came to be known as the Montreal Massacre, fourteen female engineering students were dead. In sharp contrast to Columbine in the United States, however, in the twenty-five years since the Montreal Massacre, there have been only nine reported incidents of gun violence in Canadian educational facilities, resulting in eleven deaths. In Japan, the statistics are even more striking. With some of the tightest gun control laws in the world and an enviably low rate of gun-related homicides, it is no surprise that Japan’s schools and college and university campuses report virtually no violence connected to guns. Take Action Now to End Guns in Schools and on Campus The problem of gun-related shootings in our schools and on our college and university campuses is a contentious and highly emotional issue, but educators can and are making a difference. The vast majority of American educators—the people who understand our education system best—are ardently opposed to guns in schools and on campus and especially opposed to the idea of arming educators in the classroom. As educators stand up and voice their opposition to concealed carry in schools and on campus and send out a clear message to the NRA and gun lobby that they don’t have the right to dictate what happens in the nation’s classrooms, educators across the nation will continue to make a difference. To show your support, sign the Tobecomeateacher.org letter calling on your senator to support the fight to end guns and gun-related violence in schools and on campus by voting against concealed carry in educational facilities. Feature image courtesy of flickr.