The email caught my attention immediately. The title was “Potential Active Shooter Plans and Procedures,” and it was sent to all faculty and staff at the McGeorge School of Law, where I work, last week. The message provided detailed instructions on what to do in the event of a mass shooting on our quiet, secluded campus.
My first thought was that it was a bit much, a thought that became even stronger as I started to read through the specifics of the message. After emphasizing the need to be on the school’s emergency alert system (something I’m not sure I even knew existed), the note provided three specific options. The first two seemed obvious:
“Evacuate: If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to leave the premises.”
“Hide Out: If safe evacuation is impossible, attempt to find a place to hide where the shooter is less likely to find you.”
It was the third that got me thinking a little less casually.
“Take Action: As a last resort, and if your life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the shooter.”
Ah, yes, the Ben Carson approach. He of the bravado and staunch support of the Second Amendment.
“I never saw a body riddled with bullet holes that was more precious than our right to bear arms,” the good doctor/presidential candidate said after the latest school mass killing in Oregon. I doubt that even Wayne LaPierre would have had the nerve to spout that line, especially coming as funerals were still taking place in the tiny Oregon town where the shooter had claimed the lives of eight students and a faculty member before taking his own.
But then it occurred to me: How much risk was I facing in the job I love. I mean, law school is innately confrontational, with its use of the Socratic Method and the tough grading that shocks many first year law students, most especially those who come out of the grade-inflation cultures that are all too typical in most undergraduate schools these days.
At McGeorge, we grade honestly (the faculty’s view) or harshly (the most widely held student view), and the classroom environment, while not as impersonal and degrading as the Professor Kingsfield approach (from the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” starring John Houseman), can be viewed as intimidating, and even humiliating, by students who are unprepared for the experience.
And so, suddenly I’m thinking that maybe those “Active Shooter Plans and Procedures” aren’t that far-fetched after all. Why should McGeorge be any different than Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, or Case Western Reserve University in Columbus, Ohio, or the University of Alabama in Huntsville, or Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington, or Virginia Tech, or the literally dozens of other high schools, colleges, and university campuses where guns have been used to kill innocent victims in the last fifteen years?
Why, indeed, should McGeorge be any less at risk of a student who “goes postal” on his fellow classmates and professors? Why couldn’t we have among our 700 students a single imbalanced soul who is one poor grade or off-hand comment from deciding to copy the script that has become so ubiquitous in our nation of late?
Since receiving that email, I’ve been decidedly more circumspect. And so, when a student angrily approached me after class to complain about a grade I’d given him on a recent assignment, I found myself wondering if I should send his name to campus security. I didn’t, primarily because such complaints are not at all uncommon, and the students making them are usually either mollified when I take the time to explain why their grade was less than they thought they deserved or just lick their wounds and move on to the next assignment.
But I wonder now if I shouldn’t be at least more wary of the one possible time bomb among my many otherwise very agreeable students who might be just one insult or one perceived slight or one less than satisfying class recitation away from doing the unthinkable.
I had no such thoughts when I started teaching at McGeorge in 2000. The country wasn’t yet plagued with gun violence and mass shootings, and when they did occur, they were far more likely to be perpetrated by disgruntled employees. (The post office was where the first batch of them occurred; hence the term “going postal.”)
But for whatever reasons (undoubtedly there are many), the epidemic of gun violence and mass killings has descended on academia, with victims as young as the six and seven year olds at Sandy Hook in Connecticut and as old as the 67-year old writing prof at Umpqua earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the opposition to gun control rages on. “Stuff happens,” said Jeb Bush, thereby aligning himself with the NRA’s script, which begins with the absurdity that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” That mantra justifies denying background checks, opposing assault-weapons bans, and even objecting to licensing requirements.
And, of course, the Supreme Court has made the opposition so much easier with its misguided decisions in Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010), which sanctified the NRA/Ben Carson view that the right to own and keep guns is more sacred than life itself.
Meanwhile, in Europe, where no such absolute right is recognized, and where gun ownership is a privilege that must be earned, rather than a birthright that cannot be denied, gun violence is a fraction of what it is in the U.S. Yes, perhaps part of the reason is the culture, but Europeans have video games and ultra-violent TV shows and graphic displays of violence in their movies.
Can there really be any doubt that easier access to guns, coupled with whatever other factors cause an individual to “lose it” and kill wantonly, is part of the equation?
I don’t know how I can change my teaching methods, or if I should. I do know that we are living with a new normal now, one that is far less safe and far more foreboding than we could have even imagined just a few decades ago.