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Rights + Justice

Confronting the American Gun Addiction

As a teacher I had to think about how I'd deal with a crazed shooter in my classroom.

Crawford Kilian 22 Dec

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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We have laws controlling harmful drugs do we not? Photo by taberandrew. Creative Commons licensed.

Toward the end of my 40-year teaching career, I began to worry about on-campus mass murderers, or "shooters," as the media prefers to call them.

I'd had plenty to worry about in my classroom before that: In the late 1960s I had at least one PTSD case, a young Canadian who (like thousands of others) had joined the U.S. Army to see what a real war was like. He never misbehaved, but he had a thousand-yard stare and a kind of numb detachment from events. He would not be my last such student.

Then there were the refugees -- an Iranian-Armenian terrified, even on the North Shore, of the Shah's Savak secret police, the Ismaili Ugandans kicked out by Idi Amin in the early 1970s, a Czech girl exiled after the 1968 Soviet crackdown, the Vietnamese boat people, the Chileans. Vancouver classrooms have always been a kind of human seismometer, registering social upheavals around the world.

Yet I never felt the slightest threat from any of the students who'd escaped with their lives from their homelands. They were just glad, as I was, that they'd found a safe haven.

Things were different in the U.S. With increasing frequency, some kid with an imagined grievance would show up at school with a firearm and start killing people. Then it started to happen here -- as in Montreal in 1989; Taber, Alberta, in 1999; and Dawson College in 2006.

So, I wondered, if such a thing happens in my school, maybe even when I'm in my classroom, what do I do?

The one idea that never crossed my mind was to be armed.

I am qualified as a sharpshooter in the U.S. Army, but I wasn't going to pack a rifle into my classroom. The only small arm I'd ever used was a Colt .45: pop off three rounds at a paper target, and you qualified for guard duty whether you hit the target or not.

So if we had a gunman stalking the corridors, I'd do my best to lock the classroom doors and get the students on the floor or out a window. If he got in the room, I'd rush him with a student desk in my hands and hope to knock him off balance before he killed me.

No good scenarios

Of course that's a pathetic scenario. But once the gunman is on campus or in the corridor, there are no good scenarios, no dramatic showdowns on Main Street.

So I was not impressed when Wayne LaPierre, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, gave us his proposals for a safer post-Newtown world. Key among them: putting an armed police officer in every school in the country.

His critics instantly estimated that to put a cop in each of almost 100,000 American schools would cost at least $5.5 billion. But salaries and benefits would be the least of it.

Consider the cost of recruiting, training, and doing background checks on 100,000 school cops. Then consider the likelihood that out of 100,000 firearms in schools, some would be stolen, or snatched from a cop, or go off by accident. Consider that many male teachers already avoid teaching elementary school out of fear of being charged with "inappropriate touching" or other offenses against children. Now add 100,000 mostly male guards, recruited in haste, and guess how many of them couldn't be trusted around children. Even the Catholic Church couldn't solve that problem.

And consider also that Columbine did have armed guards. So did Ronald Reagan when he got shot in 1981.

Security theatre in our schools

The idea of staging "security theatre" is as absurd in our schools as it already is in our airports. Whatever the education level, whatever the course, the only lesson of armed cops in school would be that the world is a desperately dangerous place full of demonic forces that only violence can stop.

Admittedly, that lesson is one already taught widely in North and South America alike. Europeans with guns took the New World from its inhabitants, and have held it for five hundred years by the same means. Whatever the problem, the gun was the solution. Books, songs, films and TV, especially in the United States, promoted and glorified that myth for generations before the first shooter game was ever invented.

Partly through that cultural promotion, and partly because some people love risks and things that go bang, the use of firearms can promote a rush of endorphins in many people -- a kind of self-medication producing euphoria. I didn't feel it on the army firing ranges, though I vividly recall my joy in being praised by a drill sergeant for my improved shooting.

Guns as a drug of choice

So while guns are not my drug of choice, I recognize that millions of people love them for just that reason. They are also a form of self-medication for feelings of fear, vulnerability, powerlessness and social isolation; a firearm provides a sense, however brief, of courage, safety, control and superiority.

Sooner than give up such comforts, millions of Americans find the strength to bear the sorrow of others' gun deaths, just as millions of others, addicted to other drugs, bear the deaths of thousands in the wars of the drug cartels.

Nevertheless, we have laws controlling harmful drugs, and most advanced nations have reasonable laws controlling firearm possession and use. Because it does not, the United States has a public health problem of a kind usually seen only in failed states like Somalia, with gunshot wounds accounting for 30,000 deaths a year -- as many as die of C. dificile infections in its hospitals, and comparable to the number of civilians killed in Syria since the spring of 2011.

With an estimated 300 million firearms in the country, simply banning them is as unrealistic as expecting heroin addicts and alcoholics to just say no when their drug of choice is readily available.

But a few more billion dollars spent on mental health and social programs, instead of school cops, could help to identify and rescue those unhappy souls who dream of one last big, murder-fuelled endorphin rush before they put a bullet through their own death-hungry brains.

Dear readers and commenters, you may notice that comments are not enabled for this story. In what has become a Tyee tradition, we're closing the commenting system for the holidays to allow our hardworking team a brief respite and chance to recharge. Thanks for all the insightful, informative comments in 2012. We look forward with happy anticipation to more of the same in 2013.  [Tyee]

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