Gun Violence, Constitutional Rights, and Classroom-Style Solutions

Yesterday, we watched in horror the coverage of yet another mass shooting at a school, where students experienced the most casualties.  One of the most haunting and poignant interviews was that of a Santa Fe High School student who said she was not surprised by the fact that a mass shooting had occurred in Santa Fe.  She had a feeling that the violence would eventually reach her school.

This is not a way children should feel.  I am an adult, more emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with fear, and I experience concerns over school shootings.  I have wondered what I would do if a shooter entered my classroom.  I have pondered how far I would go to protect my students.  I have considered (although I have not let it affect my behavior) whether a student upset about a grade might retaliate violently.

My heart goes out to children afraid of violence in schools.  I had the privilege of feeling relatively safe from physical violence when I was a student, and school has always been one of my favorite places.  There are sensible solutions to this national tragedy, and these very natural, human fears, that require us to keep a clear head.   Here are some thoughts on ways to approach these debates to get to those solutions.


Let’s not inflate the risk of violence in schools:

Rationally, we must appreciate that fear of school violence is disproportionate to the actual risk.  School is the most important place a child can be, and if we adults are creating an atmosphere where children think it is a risky place to be, that is factually wrong and irresponsible.  (Consider that there are over 50 million children in public elementary and high schools.)  I appreciate and am glad that we have a low risk tolerance for intentional violence against children.  However, we should not create an inflated sense of danger for children in schools.  Children are much more likely to die from situations they do not (and generally should not) find troubling, such as riding in a car (or even on a bike).

Let’s study the problem federally:

Currently, the Center for Disease Control does not significantly study the effects of gun violence, for fear of being stripped of funding by Congress.  Conducting non-partisan, non-ideologically based studies on a partisan issue like gun control at the federal level is difficult, but not impossible.  The fact that we don’t have good data on the causes of and solutions to this problem is a point people should push more.  Let me say that again a different way:  I think we should push the point more than some members of Congress wish to block or refuse to fund our ability to even study this problem.  Information is power.  We need to de-politicize the science around this issue and make the public aware of politicians who wish to deprive the American public of actual statistics about the epidemic of gun violence in this country.  We need to study the problem in an empirically-based and responsible way, so people will trust the science and realize its ability to empower us all.

I think the most effective way to get traction is currently to attack the information vacuum left by the Dickey Amendment.  This amendment bans only anti-gun advocacy by the CDC, but has had a chilling effect on gun research.  We need to separate research from advocacy more in the public consciousness. One way to do this is for certain classes of scientists to appear less politically motivated, in my view, and earn the trust of those who are so skeptical of science and scientists that they would prefer to halt its progress altogether.

Let’s debate like adults:

Absolutist thinking – like “not one more” — isn’t going to work.  The exercise of constitutional rights requires some tolerance for risk.   Arguments that people are prioritizing their guns over children are cheap and reductive.   Imagine people contending that we prioritize phones over children when we refuse to let police do random searches of our cell phones that might prevent violence against children.  I realize that people have become polarized because many opposed to gun reform are obstinately absolutist, fearing the slippery slope.  Let’s not all descend into the abyss of hyperbole, dogmatism, and unprincipled reasoning.  That just creates a vicious cycle.

Don’t mock the “gunsplainers”:

People who know more than you (and me) about guns are an asset when debating the efficacy of specific gun reforms.  Again, information is power.  The more information, the better.

Don’t encourage the erosion of First Amendment rights:

The Second Amendment leaves room for balancing and reasonable gun regulations, and perhaps even the outright banning of assault-style weapons.  The First Amendment, written in more absolutist terms, offers a much broader range of protections for free speech.  The National Rifle Association is an advocacy organization.  Feel free to mock its extreme stances, but do not encourage your politicians to take retaliatory measures against their advocacy.

In my view, Governor Cuomo went too far when he encouraged insurance companies and other businesses to consider the reputational costs of having business relationships with the NRA, but I will be watching the NRA’s lawsuit against New York (which may involve the NRA’s involvement in unlawful insurance arrangements and not its advocacy).

Send a message to children:

One important function of the law is expressive.  The law signals what we, as a polity, value and believe.  As we do nothing on this issue, children are internalizing the view that we do not care about them.  This does not mean we should act just for the sake of acting, or that we should enact empty laws based on outsized concerns, but it does mean that inaction, in the face of a mounting body count and a number of proposed reforms, does send a message.


My hope, and perhaps it is a naïve one, is that we will get closer to reaching actual solutions if we engage in good faith, guided by empirically valid information and quashing disproportionate fear and hyperbolic rhetoric, on both sides.