The gun lobby and gun rights advocates often claim that increasing gun rights makes Americans more free. Nothing can be further from the truth. Yes, permissive gun laws increase the freedom of the minority (30%) of adults who are gun owners to purchase virtually any weapon they choose. However, increasing the availability of firearms erodes our freedoms–including those of gun owners and their families–in a number of ways.
There is significant evidence showing that higher gun ownership levels, more gun carrying, and increasing the presence of guns in homes tend to make people less safe. While guns are sometimes used for self-protection, they are used far more often in crime, against domestic partners, in suicides, and in unintentional injuries and fatalities. It follows that lowering gun ownership and gun carrying will save lives and prevent injuries, thereby sparing many Americans from the loss of life and the unimaginable injuries and horrors associated with losing or caring for a loved one who has been shot.
More Americans are reporting being mindful of the dangers of being shot when entering shopping malls, houses of worship, theaters and entertainment districts, night clubs and other crowded places. Such fear is certainly not freedom. Nor is the fear of students who are often terrified to go to school. An American Psychological Association survey has found that the fear of being caught in a school shooting is at the top of the list of stressors for students between the ages of 15 and 21. Freedom is not the term that comes to mind when we think of K-12 students participating in active shooter drills and cowering in classroom corners and under desks.
In response to school shootings, states like Florida with especially influential gun lobbies prefer to do anything but address the widespread availability of guns and assault-style weapons. They want to focus on arming teachers and school staff, turning school properties into high security prison-like settings, conducting drills, and focusing on mental health despite the fact that most school shooters do not have a serious mental illness. The militarization of schools represents the antithesis of freedom for students and school staff.
Requiring or incentivizing teachers and school staff to carry guns is dangerous and will cost lives rather than free people from gun violence. Active shooters are almost never taken down by armed civilians but putting arms in the hands of improperly trained individuals will lead to fatal shootings within the school, thefts of guns, accidental shootings, and other misuses. It forces talented teachers out of education and interferes with the right of students to have the best education possible. Teachers, students, and administrators alike oppose the practice and, yet, the gun lobby is pressing to arm teachers since Wayne LaPierre of the NRA famously stated: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The militarization of schools through arming teachers and active shooter drills provide constant reminders to students of the dangers of an active shooter. Rather than freedom, this is a constant distraction from their studies. At the college level, allowing guns on campus seems counterproductive as universities have consistently been shown to be safer than the surrounding community. Why import the community’s problems onto campuses?
Two years ago, three University of Texas at Austin professors filed a lawsuit against the stateAttorney General and several officials at the university over a 2015 law allowing concealed handguns on college campuses. The professors argued the law infringed their First Amendment right to academic freedom, saying the carrying of guns into classrooms created a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression. As a former criminology professor, I would imagine that the free-wheeling discussions we had on such controversial topics as abortion, sexual assault, and race and justice, would have been far more subdued or would not have been broached at all had students been “packing.”
The most extreme manifestation of how individuals wielding guns can deprive others of their First Amendment rights are displays of menacing behavior by gun rights activists aimed at groups who are engaging in activism to bring about gun law reform. Armed groups such as Open Carry Texas and the Utah Gun Exchange have bullied and threatened individuals organizing voluntary gun buybacks and have stalked activist students seeking changes in gun laws as they made their way around the country.
Finally, a shocking example of how the gun violence epidemic can lead to an erosion of our freedoms is shown by a Senate Republican bill that would tackle mass and school shootings through the enhanced monitoring of students’ communications. Rather than addressing the roots of the despair that lead young people to commit school shootings and their easy access to weapons capable of mass slaughter, the GOP, a party historically concerned about invasions of privacy, recently filed a bill that would dig deeply into the online activities of students.
The legislation would require federally funded schools to install software to surveil students’ online activities, potentially including their emails and searches, in order to identify “violent” or alarming content. Education groups say that such intensification of social media and network surveillance can discourage children from expressing themselves online. Social media monitoring has already increased dramatically in response to gun violence. The Brennan Center for Justice notes that, from 2013 to 2018, the number of school districts across the country that purchased social media monitoring software increased from six to 63.
Schools are being inundated with alerts, with some receiving over a hundred a day. The technology does not merely monitor student activity during the school day but operates 24/7, monitoring school email accounts, web searches, and, in some cases, students’ public social media accounts as well.
The jury is still out in terms of the impact of this dramatic escalation in student monitoring. There is a significant concern that student communications may be misinterpreted due to student cultural differences and casual conversations that may be mistakenly viewed as threats by the software employed, potentially exposing a much wider pool of students to the attention of law enforcement.
While some monitoring of student activities may be desirable, there is a difference between encouraging young people to come forward if they witness threatening behaviors or statements and the routine, around-the-clock electronic surveillance of young people that will often misinterpret loose talk of kids as a threat and bring some form of heavy-handed response. Ultimately, the latter will lead kids to be more secretive and find ways to communicate with their peers that will circumvent the monitoring. Surveillance may be politically more palatable than dealing with the alienation and trauma experienced by young people, as well as the enactment of effective gun laws. However, such monitoring does nothing to address the social, psychological, and familial factors that lead young people to commit horrific acts. To the extent that we persist in ignoring the reasons for the carnage we are seeing, we will continue to fail to free our kids and society from the ever-present threat of gun violence.
Thomas Gabor, Ph.D. is a criminologist and author of ENOUGH! Solving America’s Gun Violence Crisis (thomasgaborbooks.com)