Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pistol Packin' Profs

You’ve probably heard the civil libertarian’s motto that the best response to bad speech is more speech. Now, thanks to the efforts of several state legislators, this First Amendment mantra has a Second Amendment equivalent. According to lawmakers in several jurisdictions, the best response to bad guns is more guns.

As soon as the terrible news emerged about the killings at Northern Illinois University, you knew it would only be a matter of time before someone suggested arming students and professors as a means of protection. Enter Stacey Campfield of the Tennessee House of Representatives, who recommends that anyone licensed to carry a concealed weapon should be allowed to bring it to class. “You're just advertising to the crazies where they can go for the easy pickings," said the Knoxville Republican, "where they are going to face no resistance, where it's going to be taking sheep and leading them to the slaughter."

It is unclear how that makes college campuses any different from shopping malls, supermarkets, or doctor’s offices, other than the fact that school shootings of all kinds generate enormous publicity and heart-rending film footage. Colleges are also—and this may be another factor in the public’s reaction—largely populated by the sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes, for whom this sort of violence seems unthinkable. Campfield would presumably argue that the other major difference is that when campuses are officially deemed gun-free zones, potential killers can feel assured that their attacks will not meet with a deadly response. (Wouldn’t the same argument, then, apply also to bars, where firearms are generally prohibited? Best not to give Rep. Campfield any ideas, I suppose.)

Campfield appears stunningly unaware that his own argument contradicts itself. Campus killers are, as the lawmaker so delicately puts it, “crazies”. Now it has been several years since I’ve seen the inside of a psychology classroom, but I’m still fairly certain that one of the key definitions of “crazy” has something to do with a disassociation from reality. These are not people who calculate their likelihood of dying in the process of carrying out their twisted acts. Indeed, you’ll notice that most of these attacks end in suicide. The individuals who commit mass murder in a dorm or lecture hall are people who have snapped for some reason. Given that their perceived grievance is usually with the college itself, it seems pretty unlikely that Campfield’s bill would cause them to find a different target for their murderous rage.

Let’s for the moment assume that this Tennessee politician cares deeply about public safety and truly believes that his law would keep kids safe from attack. I mean, he probably does. Still, there is a disturbing pattern here of Second Amendment absolutists taking advantage of every highly publicized tragedy to find a way to make pistol-packing a more routine and normal part of American life. (And yes, I know gun control supporters often do the same thing.) I generally oppose gun control laws, but people like Campfield do his side no favors.

No right is so absolute that it is never subject to time, place, and manner restrictions. You have the right to free speech, but you cannot stand up during a professor’s lecture and interrupt her with some political diatribe. Your free exercise of religion does not allow you lead your public kindergarten class in prayer. Freedom to assemble ends when incitement to riot begins.

We do not permit guns on university campuses for good reason. First, college life is full of emotionally charged moments. If I were a department chair or dean, I would not want to worry about a concealed weapon when I informed an assistant professor that he has just been denied tenure and may have spent thousands of dollars and hours in graduate school for nothing. Anyone who has seen or read about the deeply angry and personal disputes that take place between faculty members should understand that adding guns to the equation would be unwise. Students aren’t the only people who snap.

Moreover, even the minimal training necessary to receive a concealed weapons permit cannot guarantee a cool head or a steady hand in crisis. After hearing so much about the horrors at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech, all of us in the professor biz pay significantly greater attention these days to seemingly unhinged students. What if we misperceived the wrong move by some weird kid and opened up on him? And why does anyone assume an armed historian in mid-lecture would get the drop on a gunman who, as he did in Illinois, emerges suddenly from behind a curtain? (Indeed, under Campfield’s law, wouldn’t it simply make sense to shoot the prof first? Thanks, buddy.)

Look, we live in a dangerous society, though not nearly as dangerous as the media makes us think. The easy availability of guns unquestionably increases the probability of these incidents occurring. Both the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois killers came by their weapons in a legal, Second Amendment-certified manner. But we aren’t going to stop “crazies” by turning our college faculty and staff into mini-militias. More likely, we would simply create a new class of victims.

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