I teach a class on communication strategies and argument construction to college freshman. I worry a lot about violence, so throughout the semester I tell my students that whenever they feel overwhelmed, they should come talk to me. I also check to make sure the classroom windows can be opened if gunshots sound in the hallway. One of the assignments that I give my students is to write a paper on a controversial issue about which they care deeply. Many of them choose gun control, arguing in favor of our right to bear arms.
Inevitably, these papers unsettle me. I attended Virginia Tech for a short while in the early 2000s, and I am close with a family that lost a daughter in the 2007 massacre. As a first-generation Arab-American who grew up between the U.S. and the Middle East, I've had the opportunity to view the U.S. from the outside. And I have always been somewhat baffled by the second amendment and its fierce adherents. Clearly the founding fathers knew that the document they'd created was neither sacred nor immutable, that it would not always reflect the reality or demographic of America, that they themselves were neither omniscient nor prescient. Hence their foresight in establishing Article V of the Constitution, which, to me, exemplifies the beauty of the American democratic process. I imagine that were James Madison alive today, he might think that the Bill of Rights had been manipulated to serve the interests of various groups. Given that the threat of government tyranny, one of the original motivations behind the second amendment, is no longer significant, he might feel that it is now being used as a political weapon.
My students often present the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument. They supplement this argument with the claim that we need to focus on the state of mental health in this country rather than gun control. As someone who has undergone cognitive treatment and therapy here in the U.S., I can say that the mental health institutions in this country are some of the best in the world. In other regions, including the Middle East, mental illnesses like depression and anxiety have been historically underestimated; only recently have they entered the medical discussion. So while the state of mental health in America can be further improved, the means of acting out is the most pressing issue.
Yet it's true that the sanctity of individualism in America, versus the emphasis placed on community and obligation which exists in Arab culture, among others, seems to play a role in much of the violence that we've seen in recent years. We live too alone here, we lack the necessary friends and family support structure to appeal to when we're feeling despair. I spend significant time discussing with my students the ways that technology and social media can, ironically, alienate us from one another. And so the argument that everyone should have a gun to protect themselves also fails, as it presumes that everyone values their own life. Given that most of these mass shootings have ended with the killer's suicide, possibly due to feelings of extreme isolation and desperation, the case for arming everyone simply doesn't hold.
My students argue that guns are necessary for recreational and hunting purposes, but do hunters need semi-automatic firearms to hunt deer? And yes, guns exist, people will always be able to obtain them, even if they're more strictly regulated. Laws rarely prevents anyone from getting what they want -- just look at underage alcohol consumption, another issue my students care deeply about. But wouldn't less people be able to obtain guns if they weren't as easy to get? Wouldn't the death toll at least decline?
It seems obvious that the issue is not about rights. In fact, if one were to accept that it is, they would also have to accept that the rights of certain citizens are worth more than the rights others; that the rights of those who want to own guns trump the rights of those who want to live without fear that they or their children will be shot while sitting in a classroom, movie theater, or house of prayer.
We don't want to hear another politician give another speech about how deeply saddened we are for the victims and their families. We don't want to see another picture slideshow from the scene of the crime. We don't want pro-gun lobbying groups to issue another statement guaranteeing members that their rights will be protected despite recent events. We want the gun control debate to happen today, in the thick of this latest tragedy, if only for the sake of preventing the next one.
I want to be able to teach without fear that giving a bad grade will get me shot.