Several years ago, I taught a student who seemed capable of shooting up a classroom. He radiated contempt for me, his classmates in my college freshman composition class, and the assignments, muttering about the stupidity of his peers and rolling his eyes when they spoke. His writing displayed a generalized hatred toward women and violent fantasies involving hypothetical, gruesome gun crimes against cheating girlfriends. One day as I rounded the corner, I heard him berating a female student in the hallway because she had defended me against whatever complaints he aired. Spittle flew from his face toward hers.
Eventually, as is almost always the case with such students, he found reason to complain to my boss about my teaching. He took issue in particular with my having deleted a violent comment on the class blog. My boss explained it was my right and responsibility to maintain a safe learning space for the whole class, which sometimes meant censoring comments. The student became irrational and nonsensical. After he left, my boss walked straight to my office to say she was concerned for my safety, and had referred the student to the appropriate office for assessment of a possible threat.
Teaching freshman comp courses, like teaching high school, is routinely high-stakes, high-emotion work. Students who are still teenagers, who are struggling with leaving home for the first time, and who have probably been told that a college education is the key to a successful future carry an incredible level of stress. We’re accustomed to tantrums, shouting and a wide range of irrational behavior. In my courses, that behavior tends most frequently to come from young men. But this student had evoked a more threatening tone. If anyone in the 17 years I’ve taught college might have shown up with a firearm, this student was the one.
So far, this sounds like a viable argument for arming teachers, an idea that bubbles up after every school shooting in this country and one that President Donald Trump expressed support for on Wednesday. But my fellow teachers and I did not enter this profession to be security guards. And if this proposal becomes a reality, we will not have safer schools. We will have confusion, possibly more tragedy and an exodus of educators at a time when our country can’t afford it.
If this student had shown up with a weapon determined to harm us, what would my responsibility have been? Talk? De-escalate? Beg? Run? It seems clear that under any policy that arms teachers, it would be my responsibility to shoot my student dead. This creates more problems than it solves. If I miss or fail to fire and he murders the other students, can their loved ones sue me? What if my shot ricochets and hurts or kills one of them? What if his gun turns out to be a walkie-talkie, a misidentification that happened outside my campus’ library last year, and I shoot my student dead for possession of an unusual electronic device? In these scenarios, some more outlandish than others, teachers become soldiers, and schools become liable when students aren’t protected in such circumstances as a shooting.
But legal liability isn’t the reason I will never carry a firearm into a classroom. If it’s my responsibility to shoot someone to protect 25 others, I will have been drafted unwillingly into an ideological army to protect the rights of some civilians to own and operate military-style weapons. And I will not be conscripted.
The National Rifle Association has been accelerating and expanding the ideological warfare it wages on behalf of gun manufacturers for decades. Once legitimately a member-driven organization focusing on service and safety, it is now devoted to lobbying on the part of gun manufacturers. Because guns last a long time and are often kept and passed down, there’s only one way to support the continued manufacture and sale of guns: by rebranding them as fetish properties to collect and own with pride. That is how we come to a situation in which 3 percent of Americans own half of the guns in the United States, with collections averaging 17 guns per owner, and individuals frequently owning 40-plus guns, as reported by the Guardian newspaper. Add in a load of specialized and controversial accessories like bump stocks and silencers, and you have a business that can stay solvent for a little longer.
Another way to boost sales? Arm teachers. The Department of Education counts roughly 100,000 schools in the United States. The number of classrooms varies, of course. A gun in each one looks like a very profitable bulk order.
Whatever its logic and motivation, I will not join that army.
I will never kill for a civilian’s “right” to own a military weapon. Perhaps, like the draft dodgers of my parents’ generation, I’ll have to leave for a country where the laws make more sense. Anything to avoid the addition of “taking a life” to my job description, when that job is supposed to be about preparing young people to thrive for the rest of theirs. More likely, I will leave the profession if I cannot feel safe in my workspace, as will many others.
Our job is to teach; the job of legislators is to pass laws that serve the public. None of us are required to entertain a “solution” to school shootings that only stands to serve the interests of the gun lobby, not our students.
Victoria Barrett is a writer and writing teacher in Indianapolis. She is the editor and publisher of Engine Books.
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