(written in response to Idaho Senate Bill 1254, which would allow concealed weapons on campus)
Idaho has long nurtured what some have termed “a gun culture.” Hunters and ranchers reasonably see rifles as necessary tools. Families pass treasured rifles from grandparent to parent to child and educate the youngest members of the family about gun safety. Such responsible gun ownership is to be admired.
However, recent discussions about guns make clear this traditional gun culture is being co-opted by a newer, disturbing one marked by the language of distrust and threat. This new culture, one of whose primary features is the concealed carrying of handguns, uses a different rhetoric and logic—and this way of thinking and speaking is at odds not only with the entire mission of the university, but also with a just, democratic civic life.
In the culture of concealed carry, enthusiasts speak of “good guys with guns” and “bad guys with guns,” as if the language of preschoolers could adequately capture the complexity of negotiating our increasingly diverse society. Worse, these same people speak of “gun-free zones” as if such spaces are and should be an aberration. In the perspective of concealed carry culture, “gun-free zones” are described as an inviting target for “bad guys.” Such talk reveals not only a surface-level paranoia, but also deeper, more malevolent meditations on the mass murder, with an implication that mass shootings are inevitable, particularly at schools. Even worse, in concealed carry culture, the solution for such mass-shooting scenarios is more guns and more bullets flying, not fewer.
It’s not surprising, then, that this culture also embraces “stand your ground,” the legal right to shoot and kill someone if one feels threatened. As we have seen in the national news recently—most visibly in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases, but certainly not limited to these incidents—many gun-carrying white men feel threatened by aspects of cultures that are not their own. These aspects include, but again are not limited to, clothing, music, and darker skin, and, taken collectively, might in the case of African-American men be viewed as “thug culture” or, in the case of Muslim attire or practice, a harbinger of terrorism. The perception is that other cultures are intruding into the space rightfully occupied by WASPs, and the solution to this “problem” or “threat” is violence.
The “stand your ground” ethos is antithetical to that of the university. Higher education is about intellectual growth and nuance; it’s about negotiation rather than standing one’s ground. It’s about considering new ideas and learning about new ways of being in an ever-changing world. Higher education embraces civility in the face of unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas—it’s about civic discourse.
This insistence on civic discourse and global engagement is one factor driving Boise State’s recruitment of both out-of-state and international students, as well as its desire to draw the best faculty in the nation and world. Many of these students and faculty grew up in cultural contexts very different from those of students from Idaho. I, for example, grew up in a gay neighborhood and attended a high school that was only 20 percent white. For me, then, teaching at Boise State involves a good deal of listening to Idaho students’ experiences—many of which are foreign to me—and understanding their perspectives while simultaneously challenging them to broaden their views on any number of politically-tinged historical issues. Of course, they rightfully challenge my beliefs, too.
I worry the knowledge that there may be students concealing weapons in the classroom will quash this civic discourse, and that students and faculty will be hesitant to take the intellectual risks that allow all of us to connect and grow as human beings. Frankly, I am especially worried about students of color and international students, as those perceived to be of a different culture from the “norm” WASP culture are often the victims of misunderstanding and gun violence.
I encourage our legislators to vote no on S 1254, and I exhort everyone to elevate the dialogue about guns on campus and in our society. In particular, in a state whose residents cherish their history and heritage, we need to carefully differentiate what is part of the traditional gun culture, and what is part of the concealed carry culture that breeds paranoia and glorifies violence in the name of self-defense.