Educating can’t happen if the educators are armed. Here’s why.
In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the American gun debate has resumed with a vengeance, and President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested one possible solution: to encourage educators to carry firearms into classrooms. The logic (if you want to call it that) is that schools are safer if we choose to train teachers to defend their classes with lethal force and promote the message that schools are not “soft targets.”
But not all teachers, the president stressed—just “people with great talent at guns” who “feel more comfortable having the gun anyway.” Anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the nation’s educators might be armed, he suggested in comments and follow-up tweets. “We’d give them a little bit of a bonus.” This, he said, would “solve the problem instantly.”
On paper, I’m exactly the kind of armed educator the president seemed to be describing, the kind who might sign up to earn that bonus. I was raised around firearms, exposed to shooting and target practice from a very young age, and I am extremely comfortable being around, handling, and shooting guns. I’m a good shot. I’ve shot more different kinds of firearms than I can remember—including quite a few assault rifles—and have owned a range of guns throughout my adult life, including the present. In my 20s, I had a concealed weapon permit that allowed me to legally carry a concealed handgun across a number of states, a privilege I exercised more often than I should have. It is exactly this experience that makes me so intensely skeptical of the idea that armed teachers can ever be a good idea.
It’s hard to believe that this point even needs to be made at all. As many op-eds and think pieces have already stated, the various practical obstacles and enormous dangers involved in effectively training and arming hundreds of thousands of teachers are immense. This is in many ways an unserious distraction from the debate around gun control that we need to be having.
But I’m also a college professor and a researcher of psychology, and as long as Americans are now talking seriously about teachers with guns, I believe that there is one key element missing in this discussion—an acknowledgment of how guns change the way you think, and how you view others.
Being armed places you in a state of mind that is not conducive to teaching. Carrying a firearm responsibly means that you are operating in a state of heightened awareness and caution. You are aware of where your firearm is at all times. You are aware of your environment. You are aware of everyone around you. And whether you want to admit it or not, you are looking for threat—trying to identify whether or not you might need to use that firearm you are carrying.
Such mindsets might be totally appropriate for a law enforcement officer, a security officer, or a soldier. They are not at all appropriate for educating.
I teach classrooms full of young adults several times a week. I take my job seriously and my role as an educator with the gravity and sincerity that I think the position demands. I view the relationship with my students as being something close to sacred. When they are in my classroom, I am responsible for helping to shape and guide them toward a future they are hoping to obtain. My students trust me, and they are entrusted to me to educate them and to care for them and to help them grow. Any attempt to merge this duty with the attitude of being an armed enforcer in their midst is simply not possible. Personally, I cannot imagine walking into class every day being mentally prepared to both educate hungry minds and execute another human being if the situation required it.
These realities are irreconcilable for me, and I think that they are for anyone who is being honest with themselves. Even if all the practical barriers to arming educators could somehow be overcome, the psychological aspects of it should take this discussion off the table.
When educators become enforcers, education stops.
In my academic life, one of my areas of expertise is the psychology of religion and spirituality. I study what people believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs shape their lives. When it comes to guns in America, so much of the public dialogue reminds me of issues of faith and religion. In any belief system, faith in the higher truth—God, scripture, or some other spiritual reality—always wins out; faith prevails over reason, over science, over facts, and over civility. The gun debate has taken this turn. It has long ceased to be a dialogue about logic or facts or reason and has become an ideological conflict between people with fundamentally differing worldviews. And if the great religious wars over human history have taught us anything, this clash is likely to take a lot longer to work our way out of than we want to admit.
Even so, maybe there is hope. If a gun-toting 21-year-old kid can grow up into a college professor who is willing to take a stand against this absurdity, maybe others can too.