Earlier today, as I sat in a darkened college classroom with my students, doors locked and shades closed for fear that an active shooter might be at large on our campus, I knew that the current dialogue surrounding school shootings would never be impersonal or distant for me again.
For fifty-nine of the longest minutes of my life, surrounded by scared but resilient students, I wondered what was happening down the hall, across the quad, and across campus. For almost half of those minutes, I thought there was a chance that a shooter might at any minute violate the sanctity of my own classroom.
Every time there has been a mass shooting in the past couple of years, I have felt compelled to write about it, but every time, I watch the national conversation devolve into angry and non-productive partisan shouting matches. Even the hateful talking point parroting fades away after a week or so, and we never approach anything resembling a rational debate about why we are the only developed nation where children are murdered at school by white men wielding semi-automatic weapons. There seems to be little appetite for middle ground in the debate about guns and mass shootings.
For me, things are different after today. The potential for a mass shooting has come to my campus and to my classroom. I have stared it in the face. I have watched my students struggle to come to terms with it. I'm done being silent about it.
Particularly given the polarized nature of discussions about gun control, I have largely avoided writing about this topic because, in many ways, I find myself occupying a middle ground. Though my own personal positions on gun control have shifted over time, I understand arguments from both sides even when I don't always agree.
I grew up around guns. I learned to shoot when I was young. I got my first gun when I was still a pre-teen, though I was allowed to use it only under very close supervision. I was 12 years old the first time I used a high-powered rifle to take a deer. As an adult, I got a concealed carry permit, and when I lived in Eastern Kentucky, I carried a concealed handgun most everywhere I went, because many of my travels were to unsafe places. I shot competitively for a while, and when I carried a concealed handgun regularly, I shot 150-200 rounds a week to stay in practice. I kept a 12-gauge shotgun by my bed, a .38 revolver in my nightstand, and an AR-15 in the closet. Looking back, I'm not sure what I was afraid of, but whatever it was, I was ready for it.
At age 31, when I transitioned from small business owner to first-time college student, I owned a large number of firearms, and they were worth thousands of dollars. By that point, however, I had become wary of gun culture. I enjoyed shooting sports and hunting, and believed strongly in my right to carry a weapon and defend myself. However, I had begun to notice just how insane the gun industry's rhetoric was becoming.
Their goal, pretty clearly, wasn't to defend freedom, whatever that means. Their goal was to sell more guns and more gun stuff. The NRA and gun manufacturers were counting on gun people to bolster their bottom lines. Cloaked in grandiose patriotism and prodded to action by celebrity spokespeople, many gun owners began to think that it was their God-ordained duty to buy as many guns as they could afford. I saw it happening, and it disgusted me. What disgusted me more were the insane conspiracy theories that circulated among the gun rights crowd. Birtherism and false flag operations and illegal terrorist immigrants the like were, in many ways, just more encouragement for gun people to buy more guns. I finally decided that I was done buying into this culture.
When I left Kentucky in 2010 to return to my hometown in North Carolina, I sold most of my guns. I no longer felt a need to carry a concealed weapon, because I didn't feel unsafe anymore. Getting away from the bombastic rhetoric of gun culture did wonders for my ability to live without fear. I still slept with a Glock under my pillow for a while, but eventually, like most of my other guns, I sold it for tuition money. These days, the only guns we have at home are a WWI-era rifle and a couple of .22 caliber varmint-guns, which are standard on most any rural homestead like ours. In our neighborhood, I'm substantially more concerned about coyotes and copperheads than about criminals or terrorists, so we are armed accordingly.
In the days following the Parkland school shooting, as politicians began pushing to arm teachers, I started to think about my own position on the issue given that I am a college professor who spends hours every day inside classrooms. In general, I am opposed to guns on campus, particularly when they are carried by students. The notion of a half a dozen guns flying out of waistbands and backpacks when a shooter bursts into the classroom does not make me comfortable, especially since I would be standing between those gun and said shooter and lots of testosterone and raw emotion would be involved. I am not confident that arming teachers would make a bit of difference, either. Carrying concealed, especially in the sort of professional attire worn by educators, does not lend itself to fast drawing. If I were carrying a small handgun in an ankle holster, as I have many days in my life, there's no way I could draw it, take aim, and discharge it at a shooter rushing into my classroom armed with an AR-15 before being mown down by the shooter's bullets. As someone who has carried concealed weapons regularly at times in my life, I understand the logistical limitations. Those who are proposing concealed carry for teachers have perhaps not thought it through.
One of the more ridiculous arguments comes from Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA. As recently as this week, he said that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is for good guys to have guns. First and foremost, I refuse to start the conversation at "bad guy with a gun" when there are plenty of steps that we must take to ensure that bad guys do not in fact get guns. It is not inevitable that bad people end up with guns, and there's plenty of evidence to back this up if we look beyond our own borders. The more problematic part of this idea, however, is that it assumes that those who are bad are always bad, and those who are good are always good. As Martin Luther so poignantly noted, we are simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously saint and sinner. We are all both good and bad. A good guy with a gun is a good guy until, well, he isn't. Guns do not evaporate when those wielding them make fleeting or permanent transitions from good to bad. Therein lies the rub. Yesterday, he was a good guy. Today, he's a bad guy. He has the same gun in both circumstances.
It is also problematic to argue, as President Trump has, that potential mass shooters would be dissuaded by the fact that some teachers would be packing heat. Most perpetrators of mass killings carry out their crimes not because it's convenient, but because they are determined to kill even if it means losing their own lives. Often, these mass shooters take their own lives when they are done killing, and they know that they are likely to be killed by those who respond to their shootings. The 2009 Fort Hood shooter carried out his crime on a military base, where literally almost every person he encountered was trained in the use of firearms. He didn't do it because it was easy or because he thought there would be little risk. To argue that the potential to encounter armed resistance would keep these deranged individuals from carrying out mass shootings is to indicate a complete lack of awareness about the realities of these crimes and the monsters who commit them.
As I said at the outset of this essay, there is very little middle ground in national debates about guns. Conservatives remain convinced that liberals are trying to take away their guns. Liberals continue to make absurd claims about scary-sounding phrases like "assault weapon" and "semi-automatic gun" without even knowing what these phrases really mean. The tin-foil-hat brigade, led by nuts like Alex Jones, is screaming about Nancy Pelosi coming to get our guns, while the angriest and most uninformed voices on the left are trying to put my semi-automatic .22 squirrel rifle into the same category as an AR-15.
I am encouraged this week by attempts at bipartisanship. Even President Trump has staked out some positions that run counter to the NRA, though I'm not convinced he will stick with them. There are so many common-sense initiatives that could be implemented, all of which have widespread support among Americans, and none of which would infringe on Second Amendment rights. I tend to be a jaded observer, but at a time like this, I need to hope that the unhinged lunatics at the NRA can be overcome by common sense.
It's those NRA folks like Wayne LaPierre, incidentally, who are at the heart of this problem. I was once a proud NRA member. I grew up reading American Rifleman when I could get my hands on copies of it. I used to love to go fox hunting with my grandfather because the hunting cabins we would stay in were always stocked with copies of American Rifleman, the official magazine of the NRA. Back then, it was full of good stories about guns, hunting, and the great outdoors. However, by the time I reached adulthood, the magazine had become nothing but a tool with which the NRA scared its members into action. Somewhere along the way, there was a shift, and along with this shift was the genesis of a toxic gun culture.
When I was a kid, I'd sometimes hang around my uncle's gun shop. I loved the smell of gun oil almost as much as I loved the stories the men who hung out there would tell. It was always a positive experience for me in a childhood that sometimes lacked positive moments. Seldom was there any talk about politics. Two decades later, as an adult and small business owner with extra money to afford a gun or three, I encountered a much different culture at the various gunshops I frequented. Gone were most of the fun hunting and shooting stories. In their place were rabid Republican political talking points, frenzied talk about liberals coming to take away our guns, and a potent combination of fear and consumerism that drove customers to buy as many guns as they could afford in anticipation of some gun rights doomsday event.
The other new element in the gunshops of my adulthood: AR-15 rifles. Sure, they existed when I was a kid, but I didn't know anyone who had one. These days, I don't know many gun people who don't have one. I won't pretend that I don't enjoy shooting AR-15s. I have owned a number of them, and they are indeed fun to shoot. However, they were designed for a single purpose: to kill humans. They are weapons of war. Period. While some will argue that they are useful for hunting, most gun people know better. Whether it's taking large game like deer or eliminating invasive varmints like coyote, there are better-equipped rifles for these tasks. I might buy the argument that the AR-15 is an effective means of home defense, but I'll take a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun with 00 buckshot at my bedside any day over an AR-15.
One of the more striking features of the AR-15 is that 30-round magazines are standard. Because it is semi-automatic, the AR-15 will shoot as fast as one can pull the trigger. Equipped with a bump stock device, it shoots even faster. These high-capacity magazines are a feature designed for the weapon's primary mission: to kill people. If we cannot agree that these high-capacity magazines should be banned, then we must come to terms with the reality that they make it possible to slaughter large numbers of people in short amounts of time. Are we so obsessed with our alleged freedom to own high-capacity magazines for weapons designed to slaughter humans that we are willing to continue to see children gunned down with these weapons at school?
Wrapped in red, white, and blue, and whipped into an angry frenzy by LaPierre's NRA, today's gun culture is toxic. It is steeped in consumerism, driven by paranoia, and wholly out of touch with what was once good and laudable and wholesome about communities centered around the outdoors and shooting sports. The terrifying reality is that most mass shooters -- perhaps most notably the Charleston shooter Dylann Roof -- are steeped in this new and toxic gun culture. Their social media feeds and those who know them confirm this reality. While this toxic gun culture alone might not drive mass shooters to murder, it is an unavoidable part of the problem.
As we continue to grapple with what it looks like to debate gun control and mass killings, we have to debate in good faith. At this point, the NRA cannot do so. In his recent speech to CPAC, LaPierre demonstrated that he is completely detached from reality. Peddling conspiracy theories and demonizing those who seek in good faith to endeavor to solve hard problems, LaPierre indicated his stedfast refusal to engage in constructive dialogue about guns. Therefore, the NRA should not have a seat at the table. When their only goal is obstruction, they are not worthy of sitting at the same table as men and women who are passionate about reaching across the aisle to solve these heartbreaking problems.
In the days leading up to today, as politicians and talking heads debated guns in classrooms, I wondered, despite my own theoretical opposition to more guns on campus, if I would regret not being armed if a shooter burst into my classroom. I wondered if, when evil was in close proximity and on the move, I might yearn for the weight and the reassuring comfort of a Glock 23 tucked into a leather holster inside the waistband of my pants.
Today, as my students and I sat there in that dark classroom, knowing that there could be a shooter nearby, I thought about my own experiences with guns, and about the times in my life I had been grateful to be carrying a concealed handgun. I thought of the time I was accosted on the sidewalk of the town where I lived in Kentucky by a meth addict who threatened to hurt me if I didn't give him my wallet. When I gently brushed my suit jacket back to expose the shoulder holster and .45 underneath, he apologized and moved on. I thought back to a few days ago when I first wondered if I would wish for a gun in the face of danger on campus.
As I thought about it, actively aware that a shooter could be on the way down the hall, I had no regret that there wasn't a gun inside my waistband or in my pocket or in a holster on my ankle. In that moment, sitting ten feet from the door of my classroom, between an imaginary shooter and 21 students I adore, I decided that if the door flew open and a shooter came through, I would rush toward the door and do my damnedest to stop him. In ten feet, I couldn't get off a shot if I were carrying a concealed handgun, but I could run at him and block his gun spray and perhaps disarm him.
In that moment, I rejected the false dichotomy that poisons our current gun debate. I knew, in amazing clarity, that there was a middle way between cowering helplessly in fear and carrying a gun in macabre anticipation of a school shooting that might never happen. Today, when we were all afraid that the proverbial wolf had found his way to our door, I knew that if I died defending my classroom, I would be yet another symbol of a society too polarized and self-absorbed to confront gun violence with good faith and a steadfast commitment to loving our neighbors more than our political ideologies or our guns. I believe we are better than that, though our lack of ability to engage one another in these discussions would seem to indicate otherwise.