Normalizing Gun Violence on Campus

When I first read about the shooting incident on UCLA’s campus this morning I immediately feared that it was over a grade dispute. Especially at this time of the year, when final grades are being doled out, many professors live in fear of students literally fighting back over anything short of the perfect grade. This anxiety is heightened as we become more aware of the brutality common in our news. The violence has become too common, too mundane. And with gun deaths seemingly spiraling more out of control every year, that just adds another potent element into the cocktail of fear. Yet my early suspicion still didn’t mask the dread when those rumors were confirmed. Today’s news is a nightmare come to life.*

This fall I’ll begin a job as assistant professor at a Texas institution that, thanks to a recent legislative bill, will allow concealed carry. I’d be lying if I said I won’t experience a millisecond of dread any time someone walks toward me after a lecture with a serious look in their eye, or when anyone walks briskly into my office with determined pace. I wish those fears were irrational, but they’re not. The UCLA professor today was just the second academic to be shot in his office this year. Just knowing that anyone could be walking around campus carrying a concealed weapon will further add to this stress, not decrease it.

[As a side note: it is ironic that most of the people pushing for these concealed carry bills hold a superficial appeal to an originalist reading of the Second Amendment. However, the very author of that amendment, James Madison, approved the disavowal of guns on the University of Virginia campus, something that the governor of Georgia noted in his repeal of a concealed campus law.]

I feel bad for those who have bought into the myth that the only thing to stop a “bad guy” with a gun is a “good guy” with a gun. What a fraudulent and naive way to think the world operates. Not only is it ignorant of nearly all the data and studies that prove the obvious premise that “more guns” equals “more violence,” but it is steeped in a juvenile and jejune mindset more appropriate for an adolescent who plays with GI-Joes than an adult who makes grownup decisions. It seems some think the only equilibrium of safety is found in a Mexican standoff. If the UCLA professor had a gun, that likely would have led to the student shooting more quickly and erratically, perhaps even leading to more deaths. And as for bystanders: wanna-be heroes often kill as many innocents as duplicitous villains. This isn’t hollywood.

More, the “good guy with a gun” myth originated with and is pedaled by the money-grabbing gun industry who tries to make a buck through our bloodshed. Those who buy into it are either ignorant of the facts or are just flat-out obtuse as to how the world works.

But what I’m really worried about is how these bills that allow concealed carry on campuses–and in most public locations, for that matter–is that they just normalizes the very presence of guns and silently vindicate their depraved purpose. These shootings are not normal. Our illogical and indefensible obsession with gun rights is not normal. As the best analysis of our gun culture—The Onion—puts it, we pretend that this is a necessary sacrifice for our liberty when it reality it is a perversion of our society. We pretend that these acts are inexplainable only because we reject the obvious explanation. With every action taken to broaden concealed carry on our public campuses—and, further, with every time we refuse to pass common sense gun regulation—we move further down the road toward embracing the absurd and rationalizing the irrational.

Students who are upset with their professors will be more prone to take drastic measures, as the gap between violent anger and murderous rage decreases to eventual nonexistence. Pulling the trigger on a gun will not seem as drastic a move as it once did–that is the purpose of those tools, after all, and their function must be commonly accepted given society’s embrace of its mechanism. The great intellectual feat of America’s gun industry is not only its ability to convince us that the only thing that can assure safety is to multiply the engine of non-safety, but also in assuring us that such an absurd logic is in fact sane at all. It normalizes the extraordinary.

And that’s the future that faculty and students now have to face: the terror of the mundane.

*Edit to add that it has come out that the shooter was a PhD student. The dynamic is a tad different than if it were an undergrad, but the underlying anxiety is the same.

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