Campus Gun Carry Will Ruin Social Justice in the Classroom
Today’s post is a guest post from a former classmate, Dr. Julie Hawk. Julie was my first “official” teaching mentor and I owe so much of my confidence in the classroom to her mentorship over the years. We’ve been chatting about the current possibility of campus gun carry recently. After I wrote my post on it last week, I asked her to share her thoughts from a slightly less emotional perspective.
I am not a parent, but I still felt strongly that I should heed Danielle’s call to raise advocates. By that I mean that instead of teaching a boring, culturally neutral syllabus in freshman composition this semester, I’m teaching the most challenging syllabus I’ve ever taught—one that centers on race in America. I teach at a mid-sized public university in rural Georgia that has a relatively diverse student body. That means that these students, many of them for the first time, are confronting topics that make them deeply uncomfortable, and they’re doing it while sitting beside peers who don’t look like them. Getting them to open themselves to this content was challenging, but now that we’re at midterm, they’re doing quite well. I’ve watched many students come to a consciousness about race—or we might say they’re getting woke–, and I’ve watched the attendant process of denial, acceptance, guilt, anger, and then, for some, a decision to be a part of the solution instead of the problem. I’ve watched others get stuck in that denial stage. I expected that, but it’s just midterm, so let’s see what happens. I’ve watched my students of color, especially the women, approach me with more and more agency to tell me what they think I might do better next class. As an ally whose privilege follows me everywhere I go, there are things I simply cannot see. They have taken it upon themselves to help educate me on those things, and for that I am so grateful; it must take tremendous courage to do that.
I said all of that in order to say something else, so let me get to that. This week, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a law, which is now headed to the Senate, which allows concealed carry of firearms on all college campuses in the state. House Bill 859, or “Campus Carry” will override the agency not only of individual professors and instructors, but also of individual institutions to make policy decisions that directly impact the safety and well-being of their students, faculty, and staff. All of this in the name, ostensibly, of the second amendment. The problems with this are many, but I will only focus on a few here. Education, when done well, is about challenging students (and ourselves) to push the boundaries of our comfort zones, to let our minds go to places that scare us. Ultimately, the only way this works is if the classroom is a safe space.
In other words, good educators encourage students to get uncomfortable in their thinking by telling them it’s ok; we’re all in this together, and we’re going to ride out that discomfort and confront that cognitive dissonance together. How can I do that once Campus Carry becomes law? How can I tell my students that the classroom is a safe space when it simply isn’t? How can I tell them that their mightiest weapons in the classroom are their pens when they’re wondering if the person sitting next to them has a concealed firearm? And make no mistake; they’re going to worry. They’ve told me. Black students have told me. Hispanic students have told me. White students have told me.
They don’t want this law to pass. Their reasons for this trepidation are many. Some worry that the police will have even more excuse now to pull them over unnecessarily, knowing, as they do, that black male teenagers are already treated differently than their white peers by law enforcement. How much more danger will they be in with regard to campus police just by the possibility that they might be carrying? Others noted that it might make the police more likely to “fear for their lives,” as they do so often, and assume a weapon is there, giving them excuse to open fire. Others noted that they will be distracted just knowing that their peers could be carrying, and the fact that they and their teachers are legally bound not to push the issue (it would be only questionably legal to even ask who is carrying) makes them feel even more trepidation.
As for my colleagues and I, we share all of those fears and more. But none of the Georgia legislators sponsoring and voting for this bill seem to care what the professors, instructors, staff, or especially the students at the public institutions in this state actually want. All they care about is their agenda to get guns everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except the capitol building. That’s right. It is a violation of one’s rights, they contend, to be stopped at the schoolhouse door and asked to check their weapon, but it is not a violation of those same rights to be stopped at the Gold Dome and told to check their weapon. I ask the legislators this: “What are you scared of? Do you think that allowing guns into your state building, the place where you work and legislate our lives, might endanger you in some way? If so, then I expect you to immediately vote no on this bill. If not, then I expect you to get up from what you are doing right now and start drafting a new House Bill called ‘Capitol Carry.’ If you are going to put my life—and that of my students—on the line, then you damn well better do the same with yours.”
I let my classes go early today, telling them “It’s midterm; y’all have so much work to do, and I have a whole bunch of senators to write letters to.” They laughed, but I hope they know I’m writing those letters for them, not just for—or even primarily for—me. No, while I care about my safety when I’m doing my job, I care far more about their safety and, beyond that, their well-being. In other words, I care that their bodies are safe, that they won’t be cut down in the prime of their life by someone with a gun, but I also care about their minds, that they will be free to explore uncomfortable topics in a safe space, trusting that if their opinions upset someone, it won’t turn deadly. By now we’ve all seen the slide from the presentation at the University of Houston urging teachers to avoid uncomfortable topics, saying just “not [to] go there.” I reject that notion out of hand. I’m an educator; “going there” is what I do. “Going there” is what education is. I’m going to go there. I just want to get there safely, with all my students safely there too.
About the author: Julie Hawk obtained her PhD at Georgia State University and now teaches freshmen composition at the University of West Georgia. She is committed to anti-racist advocacy both inside and outside the classroom.
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