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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Death in Cole Hall: happy Valentime's Day

[ Cole Hall, Northern Illinois University, 14 Feb. 2008]

A year ago today, a man entered a large lecture room in Cole Hall on the Northern Illinois University campus during an oceanography
class, stepped out from the curtains on the stage and shot 22 students, killing five of them, then turned a gun on himself. As of this date, a comprehensive report on the incident has not been issued. The matter is remembered mostly by people who want to use the deaths and injuries of the students to promote the unrestricted carrying of firearms on campuses, and everywhere else. As they did with the shootings at Virginia Tech University, they claimed that if students in the classes were armed, they could have opened fire on the perpetrators and prevented more deaths and injuries.

This claim makes crime scene investigators snicker and guffaw a lot, because they know the havoc and mayhem that a bunch of untrained, trigger-happy dudes with wild west complexes can produce. The Second Amendment confers the right to bear arms, but it does so in the context of maintaining a militia. It does not confer competence in their use.

I am a gun owner. I have enjoyed shooting sports, including black-power muskets used in Civil War re-enactments. I have hunted and shot in competitions. Over the years, however, a number of incidents involving "sportsmen" with guns reduced my interest in hunting. It is one thing to be out with people who know how to handle and use firearms. It is quite another to have to worry more about watching out for idiots with firearms than focusing on the pursuit of game.

I can relate a number of incidents where people with firearms endangered me and other people.
But what comes to mind first are some incidents I witnessed as a former seasonal ranger-naturalist at state recreation areas. I recall a spring ritual necessitated by the misuse of firearms. On two recreation areas, we maintained nature trails that had signs which identified and explained natural features in the areas. Every year we had to replace those signs. Although the use of firearms was prohibited in those areas, every year in the fall and winter, people would shoot them up. They were blasted apart by a number of weapons, small and large-bore rifles and shotguns. Their repair took a significant amount of work and budget. At one of the sites, we gave up and let the woods reclaim the trail. It was too expensive to maintain and too potentially dangerous for the park visitors. However, the trail was not the only place that showed destruction by gunfire. Picnic shelters, comfort stations, and road signs also bore witness that arms-bearing idiots had been there.

I have advocated in the past that the state establish an open season for road signs and require licenses to shoot them. They seem to surpass pheasants as South Dakota's favorite game. We could solve some of the perennial budget problems with an open hunting season on road signs--no daily limit, no limit on possession.

When I was a soldier, we had to observe strict rules about the weapons we were issued. When we weren't using them for training or active military purposes, they had to be locked in the armory. It was against the rules to have a weapon in one's possession unless the soldier was specifically authorized to have it, such as for guard duty, training, maneuvers, and general alerts. But the armor had a record of who had each weapon, why it was in use, and where it was.

At the times we were carrying our weapons, they would be stacked and guarded when the troops assembled for various purposes. As an instructor, I was required to have the soldiers stack their weapons where we could all see them while we were in class sessions. One reason was that properly handling a weapon was a distraction from information we were imparting. The proper handling of a weapon requires care and attention.

When people advocate that students be able to carry weapons into a college classroom, they seem not to have the foggiest notion of what the implications are. First of all, while there are shooting incidents by deranged people on campuses, the essential purpose of a campus is to be devoted to study and learning. Just because of occasional incidents where some road-sign and fish-in-barrel shooter wants to graduate to shooting kids in classrooms, the civil and peaceful atmosphere of a campus should not be altered by being designated a combat zone.

If students are permitted to carry guns into classrooms, some rules of engagement will have to be established. For example, when a gun-bearing student becomes menacing, just when should I as a professor take out my own weapon or call in a SWAT team to dispatch said student to that great Cabela's in the sky? And in the spirit of equal opportunity, will I be obligated to supply students who are not carrying guns with weapons--much as I lend them pencils on occasion--so that they will not feel that the gun-toters have an advantage over them? And will I have to instruct them on evasive maneuvers should a fire fight break out? The idea of gun-toting students is ridiculous. The purpose of campus safety measures is to prevent violence, not create the conditions for it to happen. If people feel they need to carry a gun to class, institutions which allow that should be established. Let the rest of the colleges keep education and the best environment for delivering it as their priority.

Today marks a sad, sad day for the way the contemporary penchant for violence and murder intrudes into and disrupts higher learning. The only antidote is to intensify good will and the search for constructive knowledge. The Second Amendment was written to insure an organizational remedy--a well regulated militia--to preserve freedom and peace. If campuses are turned into an Iraq or Gaza where any disaffected person can be armed to express himself by opening fire, we have lost sight of what education and its purpose is.

Our students deserve better. So do the memories of those who died a year ago.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Reading your passages about professors dealing with an armed classroom, I imagined students being admonished to turn off their cell phones and be sure their weapons were on safe so as to avoid "disrupting" the class.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States