Note: I originally wrote this piece in response to the 2013 bill, which became law, Act 226. With an opt-out clause in that law, our campuses have unanimously voted for two years to keep guns off of our campuses. My reasons for maintaining a gun-free classroom have not changed in the interim.
I am opposed to any bill that would allow licensed faculty, staff, or students to carry a concealed weapon on college and university campuses in Arkansas, and on any college campus, for that matter.
I speak from the perspective of a university professor. I am neither a criminologist nor a police officer; nor do I have special expertise in the statistical analysis of violence.
So I will avoid the statistics wars; as heartfelt as they are, they rarely change minds anyway. They only harden attitudes, and we've got enough hardened attitudes as it is.
But no one that I've read has described the intangible cost that we'll pay the moment guns show up in our classes and hallways, and that is the story that I would like to tell.
This intangible story, the one that addresses the culture of higher education, is the teacher's story.
College campuses are odd environments in many ways, and that is part of their special appeal and their essential value. Students arrive here in pursuit of their lives, in effect, at an age when many of them have only the haziest notions of where those lives will lead them. Our faculty thrive on introducing these students to their own talents and potential, a job that requires, by turns, skepticism, patience, tolerance, exploration, backward steps, and new beginnings—over and over again.
Our students undertake this kind of self-exploration and discovery without fear of penalty or embarrassment. We don't expect them to know what they think until they see what they've said, and if they don't like what they've said, then we can help them revise what they think.
It’s a process that thrives, like an orchid, in a very specific, even fragile, climate.
Introduce guns to this environment, and guns will modify this environment. And these orchids will perish.
Disagreements, heated discussions or arguments, frayed nerves as the semester ends, all-nighters, too much coffee, too many books, and not enought sleep—these are the standard operating conditions for students and faculty alike, and when we know that a .38 might be snuggled in that backpack, we also know that these conditions can now resolve themselves in nightmarish ways.
The compromise is clear: better to avoid the controversial topic, safer not to push the boundaries of a given ideology, far more prudent to avoid challenging our students to parse the discomforting complexity.
At this point, our educational system, like the orchid, withers and dies.
The fact is that guns and their regular companion, violence, have an impact on the free expression of ideas, and wherever guns are accepted as the normal accompaniment to books, laptops, backpacks, and iPhones, the reach of our ideas will shrink, and higher education will respond in the only way that it can—by condoning those ideas that are the least likely to excite controversy or to spawn disagreement and free inquiry.
We will begin to mistake frightened agreement for vigorous examination, acceptance for investigation.
This will happen by degrees, unnoticeably at first, but it will happen. And slowly, our ideas—and the values that accompany them—will conform to the influences that have nourished them: hostility, fear, aggression, threat, and retaliation.
This is not the kind of education that has distinguished this country for the last 250 years. Which is why Thomas Jefferson, in designing the University of Virginia, and James Madison, the author of the Second Amendment and a member of Virginia's Board of Visitors, forbade guns on campus.
This is not the American educational system that encouraged me to devote my life to it.
Good teaching, of course, like any profession, is an activity that requires an array of techniques and strategies. Much of our teaching occurs by example, by the policies that we enact and support, and by the lives that we lead—policies and lives that our students watch unfolding day by day.
We teach our students, then, by putting our lives on display, by showing our students that the most powerful ideas of our culture, the ones that we meet in our books and discuss in our classrooms, can also structure our lives and ultimately our society.
To allow faculty and staff to carry concealed handguns only strengthens the feelings of degradation, fear, and paranoia that give rise to the very culture of violence that we all work to dismantle every day. And it quietly sanctions the notion that our state laws, no less, encourage us to respond to violence with violence—a notion that, on a college campus, could easily lead to an unspeakable tragedy.
We do not create a peaceful campus, one that encourages the very specific pursuits that distinguish higher education, by allowing those who live, work, and learn together to carry into the classroom the weapons that can destroy that peace in a few seconds.
The most powerful weapons concealed in our book-bags, the real tools we use to protect ourselves from hatred and violence, have always been our books and the ideas they generate.
If this were to change, our mission would be irretrievably compromised.
And our students, our faculty, and our educational system would suffer accordingly.
—Sidney Burris, Professor, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville