In his December article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the solution to gun violence is more guns, e.g. that if more of us are armed, we’ll be in a better position to defend ourselves. In response to the question, do we want to live in a society “in which the answer to violence is more violence, where the answer to guns is more guns?”, Goldberg argues that the question is irrelevant in a country whose citizens own — legally and illegally — 300 million guns.
I don’t want to berate Goldberg — he’s right in pointing to the fact that gun control alone won’t prevent the 30,000 deaths that happen each year because of guns (half of which are suicides). And he’s also right in pointing to the issue of improved mental health care, as he has in an editorial after the massacre at Sandy Hook. But to argue that arming students and faculty at university campuses across the country will help curb problems? That’s downright terrifying.
Faculty members who work on campuses across the country will tell you horror stories about students who they have reason to believe may be threats. They reported that the shooter at Virginia Tech frightened them. One faculty member asked that he be removed from her class.
I know of a number of cases in which faculty and other students were aware of serious problems. In one, a graduate student who was known to be unstable routinely carried a weapon to campus. No one reported him (he was “brilliant,” if “eccentric”), even though his written work also showed evidence of his instability. After he nearly beat his wife to death in front of their young child, he committed suicide. In another, less horrific case, a faculty member — obviously in some mental distress — routinely sent emails to university listservs that were incoherent. Although several people suggested to administrators that they intervene, nothing was done until a student brought a sexual harassment case against the professor.
There are others, but honestly, I’m still too nervous to mention them. In every case, though, I’ve seen institutions too hamstrung by legal counsel — by their fear that they might get sued by the person who’s been reported — to take any meaningful action. In every case, what we’ve been told is that they can’t do anything until something happens, the vagueness of their noun choice evidence of how uncomfortable they are in telling us this.
So what happens when first responders — teachers and staff who have interacted with thousands of students over the years and have some sense when something is dreadfully wrong — get no response? What happens when institutions do nothing until something happens?
Please don’t tell me that arming myself and my co-workers is going to resolve this.