Within the first 23 days of 2018, there were 11 school shootings in the United States. In lieu of any serious discussion about gun control, there has been instead a proliferation of laws and bills that would arm teachers, and train them to be able to kill. Observes Adam Skaggs, of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “it’s the idea that people need guns everywhere—city streets, public parks, even government buildings.” It’s also the response of a nation at war with itself.
One example of the trend is the Buckeye Firearms Foundation’s funding of so-called “Faster” programs, three-day training sessions for teachers from around the country. In addition to target practice, one day of the training is devoted to “mindset development,” or bolstering teachers’ preparedness to shoot after split-second assessments. Trainees are asked “to close their eyes and imagine the student entering the classroom with a gun” and then are taught how to command the grit necessary to kill that student. One teacher from Colorado told the BBC that “she decided to picture her favourite student during the preparation exercises, in an effort to harden herself to the worst possible eventuality.” A Faster instructor was quite encouraging of such resolve: “if we can have them win in their minds first, against that student, then when it comes to the actual incident they will prevail.”
What an astounding proposition, this tragic lesson about winning “in their minds first, against that student….” This adherence to a toxic shoot-‘em-up Wild West ethic puts teachers in a clear bind: They must labor from the untenable position of actively imagining their students in the crosshairs, the objects of target practice. If this isn’t the end of civilization, I don’t know what is.
Deputizing teachers as locked-and-loaded “peace” officers speaks volumes about how challenged police are by the quotidian nature of gun violence. It should make us ponder how much democratic assumptions about the state having a monopoly on violence have been frayed by anarchic ideologies of “every man for himself.” And it brings that us-versus-them mentality into the classroom. The Colorado teacher imagined her favorite student; I’m guessing that many would imagine their worst student, or some stereotype of dangerous otherness. Either way, the imaginative act of seeing the best as worst and the worst as expendable is a separate danger in itself—a premeditated license to shoot faster, ever faster…
In the United States, more than half the population believes that having a gun enhances the chances of survival in a world overrun by gangs of terrorists. But data shows very conclusively that gun ownership is much more likely to increase the risk of harm. Research shows, as Slate notes, “a gun in the home was far more likely to be used to threaten a family member or intimate partner than to be used in self-defense.” According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, not only is “[t]he risk of homicide…three times higher in homes with firearms,” but in addition, “[k]eeping a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide by a factor of 3 to 5 and increases the risk of suicide with a firearm by a factor of 17.” There is no reason to suppose that such figures wouldn’t apply to gun-centered classrooms.
I can’t comprehend this foolish disregard of empirical data about what actually reduces gun violence.
When the nuclear-warning system accidentally went off in Hawaii a few weeks ago, many experienced the profound helplessness of confronting an unfathomable force of violence. Perhaps it lends a certain sense of control to imagine that we’d have time to “protect” ourselves by crawling into an air-raid shelter, but in case of nuclear attack, it is clear that anyone within broad range would be incinerated instantly. The only real hope for survival is limiting access to and control of the weapons themselves.
The same holds true for the extraordinary arsenal Americans own privately. We can do our best to protect ourselves against every unexpected irrational attack like the one in Las Vegas, but unless we wrap our bodies perpetually in Kevlar and travel in bomb-resistant tanks, the problem remains: There are simply too many guns in circulation for us ever to imagine that we might protect ourselves without simply reducing the number of them. In America, guns exact a toll greater than that of active warfare. According to The Guardian: “Since 1968…there have been 1,516,863 gun-related deaths on US territory. Since the founding of the United States, there have been 1,396,733 war deaths. That figure includes American lives lost in the revolutionary war, the Mexican war, the civil war (Union and Confederate, estimate), the Spanish-American war, the first world war, the second world war, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Gulf war, the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, as well as other conflicts, including in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti.”
And yet… Faster’s training does map rather neatly onto America’s romance with redemptive vigilantism. Previously in this column, I recommended Harvard scholar Caroline Light’s excellent book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense. Let me add to that recommendation Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story “Erostratus.” There, the narrator derives misanthropic and sexual pleasure from carrying a gun hidden in his pocket. That exhilaration comes, he says, not from the gun, but rather “it was from myself: I was a being like a revolver, a torpedo, or a bomb.”
Philosopher Robert Esposito writes that “things constitute the filter through which humans…enter into relationship with each other.” Guns, torpedoes, and bombs are precisely such things. Warns Esposito: “The more our technological objects, with the know-how that has made them serviceable, embody a sort of subjective life, the less we can squash them into an exclusively servile function.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote about the safety of keeping guns in the home. That quote was from Slate, not the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The text has been corrected.