The Gated Academy

gates_bigI was walking past the gates on my campus this morning and noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. Like at many universities, they are symbolic, and intended to represent the opening up of knowledge and–particularly for our campus, which serves a large number of first-generation university students–of opportunity. But today, I wondered about what it meant for safety.

Honestly, for many who live in areas that are dangerous, the university campus feels like a refuge. It can be a place apart, a space that has different values from your everyday existence, an accepting space. That’s what many of us try to provide, even for those who initially feel like they might not belong here. One of the things that always struck me as strange about living in New York City (among many others) was that you generally had to produce ID to get through the gates into a university building. This was especially true of the libraries. So, if I went to visit someone at Columbia, or Fordham, or New School, I had to first get past the bored security guard. This experience was very different from the college campuses where I had gone to school. It always felt like the space of the campus was one bordered by affinities, not by walls: if you wanted to learn or engage in conversation, you were welcome, regardless of whether you paid tuition.

Today, after what has happened in Oregon (not to mention earlier incidents), I cannot be the only one feeling like stepping onto a campus is a risk. Like it might be nice if those gates were more than notional. Like it would be nice to be locked down as a precaution. Of course, doing so would not help us. I mean, my son’s grade school does this. I don’t pretend it represents any kind of real protection. Anyone who wants to can still get in. But there is another key difference. It’s pretty unlikely that a first grader is going to be an “active shooter” (though, unfortunately, not beyond imagining).

It’s not the outside world that is the perpetrator here–the threat comes from within. No matter how high the fence, we invite students here. We open our arms to those people who have recently been vilified as “threats.” You remove mental distress, substance abuse, financial strains, family struggles, and all of the other (non-literal) triggers, and we would have no student body left, nor faculty to teach them. You put a metal detector at each door, a fence around the campus, and gates that are intended to keep people out, and they will do just that to much of the population.

About a third of households in Arizona have a firearm. Despite the national view of this state as the west’s answer to Florida, this is actually only slightly above the national average. Most of the people who own those guns are sane, relatively sensible people. They approve of background checks, they want to see that guns don’t get into the wrong hands. They are also woefully under-educated.

We need to reform gun regulation in the US, but to do that we need to be talking to the third of households that own guns. This morning on the radio I heard someone suggest that 100 million people own guns and they are not going to give them up, no matter what. This seems extremely unlikely to me. I suspect that a large portion of them would be willing to give their guns up willingly, even happily, if they understood that they were safer by doing so. That requires two things.

The first is finding a way to let them know that by getting rid of their guns today, they will make their family safer. This is a hard sell for many, since it feels contrary to what they think. There is something deeply satisfying about holding the means of another’s death in your hands. It’s the kind of confidence that a lot of training in the martial arts can give. But you can get it a let more cheaply at Walmart. It may be illusory, but it’s important that those who wish to reduce gun violence understand what people with a gun in their hands feel–which is a sense that in the worst case, they have a card to play to protect themselves and their family. So, the first thing that needs to be done is to make clear that that very real feeling is a lie.

Secondly, we need to make people feel safer in their persons and their possessions. This is really hard to do. Some people live in very difficult areas, where crime is something they face every day. Others have allowed themselves to be convinced of mean world scenarios that are extreme: either there will be a revolution in which the rich will lose their homes and their lives, or that revolution will come from the top, and the government will force them to give up their hard-earned wealth. I know people who are stockpiling weapons for either highly unlikely eventuality. We talk about the need to address mental health: figuring out a way around self-delusion and paranoia is a key step in addressing the gun culture in the US.

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