Friday, July 27, 2012

The polite student

A cure worse than the illness
An armed society is a polite society
—Robert A. Heinlein
The weight of events was heavy on our thoughts. The news reports were frightening and the college district had reacted. Department meetings featured safety lectures and the college had conducted an “active shooter” drill, in which the campus cops and local law enforcement rehearsed their emergency response procedures and tested their readiness for a Virginia-Tech-type situation.

It was not unusual for a student to approach me before the start of class for a private word, although it was just a bit strange to have one standing so close. I knew him better than most students. He had been enrolled in one of my classes before. He was unfailingly polite and applied himself diligently to his work. He spoke very quietly, so it helped that his lips were close to my ear.

“I don't want you to worry, Dr. Z, if any of the students give you any trouble,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Thanks,” I said, “but that hasn't really been a problem so far.”

“That's good,” he replied. His eyes flicked toward his classmates who had nearly filled the classroom. “It's just that I know some students get resentful when you're a strict grader and these days you never know how they might react. I just wanted to say that I've got your back.”

His coat was unzipped. With his left hand he pulled it open slightly so that I could see the holster nestled near his armpit.

“I've got a concealed-carry permit and you can rest easy. I've got your back.”

Hoping that my face did not show my surprise, I calmly replied, “Thanks. Thanks for letting me know.”

Mission accomplished, he returned to his seat.

The class continued without further complications, but every so often I threw an extra glance in the student's direction. Everything seemed the same on the outside, but the entire atmosphere of the room was changed for me. While my rational brain had reasonably reassured me that the active-shooter scenario was merely an extremely remote possibility (how many colleges are there? how many of them got shot up? we're talking good odds here!), my animal hindbrain insisted on stroking the panic button. Now, however, there was some additional solid data to process: A loaded gun was present in my classroom.

While gun-rights advocates like to quote Heinlein's aphorism about gun-mediated courtesy, they appear to care little for simple numerical arguments. Guns are an accelerant. People without guns can scream at each other and live to argue another day. Put guns in their pockets and the odds that someone will get hurt skyrocket. If a gunman strides into a movie theater and starts to shoot innocent bystanders at random, an armed citizen could presumably take him out, save lives, and be a hero. On the other hand, the result might just be more people killed in a crossfire—especially in a darkened theater and especially if more than one armed citizen joins the fight. And when the police arrive, at whom do they shoot?

I didn't feel safer with an armed student in the class, even though he was ostensibly “on my side.” He just made me nervous and acted as a constant reminder of worst-case scenarios. The worshipers of the Second Amendment extol the etiquette-enhancing qualities of firearms, but they ignore the risk-impact of the proliferation of guns while focusing on the deterrence of rare and extreme events. Their grasp of probabilities is shaky.

Still, it's not as though there is no evidence on the side of the gun advocates. History suggests that Tombstone was a very polite town. Quiet, too. At least over at Boothill.


The Ridger, FCD said...

It takes a very great deal of conditioning to make the average person shoot another one. Even in battle, most soldiers apparently take a long time to learn to really shoot at the enemy - the round-to-kill ratio is very high. I've had plenty of police tell me that most homeowners with guns get shot, often by their own weapon, because they can't quite overcome their reluctance to kill, at least not fast enough - and they have escalated the encounter with someone who has already overcome theirs. There's a reason training is so rigorous for cops.

I've heard a lot of people saying "if someone in that theater had had a gun..." but we don't know that someone didn't. It was Colorado, after all. And if someone else had started shooting, as you say, the situation would probably have been much worse, given his gas and armor.

Gene O'Pedia said...

That student's gun certainly worked well for him -- simply by revealing it he immediately gained dominance over his teacher and took control of the classroom, or so it could seem.

Look Zeno, did you screw up here and, if so, how badly? I have to assume that your college allows guns on campus, if there's an appropriate concealed-carry permit. Is that correct?

But even if so, you damn well should've asked that student for his permit, right then and there. Then ask to see the gun, make sure the safety is on and see if there's a cartridge already in the firing chamber. I'd want to know just how risky it is to have that gun and student in my classroom.

Then, you should've asked him how many hours of training he'd had, both in basic gun safety but also in all the different aspects of using a gun for self-defense or in the defense of others.

Then you should've told him that he must never use that gun until you give him the go-ahead. You're the instructor, it's your classroom, and you will determine when armed intervention is required. "Got that punk?"

I totally agree with your concerns about the proliferation of guns among the unwashed (untrained). All I have to do is consider how well people drive their cars, and then realize that they at least had to pass a test and carry insurance in order to drive. With guns, in most states there's normally no training required at all. Here's an essay from 7/26 by a former police officer who also worries about armed but untrained citizens; it hit the mark for me:

Finally, let's not forget that Robert Heinlein was a great author, of fiction. There are statistics that say when a gun is kept at home, for every instance when it is used to protect the family, there are 22 other incidents of accidental shootings, suicides, shootings-in-anger, and so on. Keeping a gun at home is far more dangerous than not having one. Of course, that's according to statistics compiled by those soft-headed Commies at the Brady Campaign.

Finally, you might be a little careful next time you want to emphasize a point in your class by, say, slamming down a book on your desk. But don't get me started.

Zeno said...

The student was identified on my roster as a veteran, suggesting that he had an easier than average time qualifying under the county sheriff's restrictive concealed-carry policy. There was no reason to doubt that he was competent with firearms. I do, however, think it would have been inadvisable to demand that he show the permit right in front of class, thereby probably bringing it to the attention of the students in the front row, if not the entire class. The less overt the situation, the more I liked it. The atmosphere in the room asymptotically approached normal.

Nicholas Hawes said...

While I agree with Zeno that "Gene O'Pedia's" suggestions are at least incautious, I share his concerns and his surprise that Zeno so easily ceded control of his class environment.

Personally, I feel unsafe when guns are present, and I would feel extremely uncomfortable knowing that a student in my class not only had a gun, but had fantasies about "having my back" should any trouble arise.

In fact, this student's fantasy that he can protect others with his gun is what really gives me concern. I wonder if, at least subconsciously, he's not hoping that something bad will happen to allow him to "save the day." There may indeed be nothing to prevent him from bringing a gun to my class, but I would (at the very least) want to make it clear to the student that I did not ask him to "have my back," nor do I want him to make any use of his firearm in my class. I may respect his legal right to bear arms, but I do not respect his approach to handling classroom problems.

When I was a boy, a lovely and gentle man who lived next door was sentenced to a six-month term in prison for manslaughter. He had killed a man in a fight at a local bar. He had not meant to kill him, but he had been a marine combat instructor and had, when attacked, instinctively applied the skills he had taught so long to recruits. My father and I discussed the matter and both decided that we were very glad we didn't know how to kill anyone.

I have to wonder what is in the minds of so many people today to feel the need to be lethal at a moment's notice?

Nicholas Hawes

Tualha said...

I am inevitably reminded of a Benny Hill sketch (loosely quoted from memory):

"Did you know that the chances of a bomb being on your flight are a million to one? But did you know that the chances of two bombs being on your flight are a million times a million to one? So, next time you fly, improve the odds: bring a bomb!"

Kathie said...

Disclaimer: I'm not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV (do reading the entire Perry Mason canon and watching Raymond Burr's personifications in my youth count?). However, I'd recommend that Dr. Zeno try to think like a lawyer -- first like the college's general counsel, then like a victim (or his/her survivors) of the concealed-carrier -- and of all the legal liability nightmares that could ensue.

As to the pragmatic matter of what to do the next time anyone on campus indicates to you that s/he's carrying, I'd say to try to display no emotion, maybe say "Thank you for telling me," but as little as possible else (CYA). Then as soon as you got back to the office, compile a memo naming the student and detailing every single detail of the event that you can recall (with quotes if possible, as well as a description of the time/place/atmosphere in which it occurred), and promptly send it to everyone from the college president on down the food-chain to your department chair, as well as to the chief of campus police, for their records. Request that they reply ASAP clarifying pertinent local law on this, as well as the college's policy re handling such matters. Also inquire as to how you should handle the student in case s/he is unhappy with your "snitching."

Kathie said...

P.S. If the guy whose behavior you described is still at your college, I'd still recommend memorializing the occasion to administrators. As I said, CYA.

Anonymous said...

I teach math at a large state university.

I've never had something like this happen, and I would hope that I would have the presense of mind to remain calm, but I suspect that I would be in somewhat of a state of shock.

I guess that my first inclination would be to announce that class is canceled for that day, in hope of being able to disperse the crowd quickly while things are calm, probably with the excuse that I am not feeling well. (My calculus classes are typically held in large auditoriums with about 200 students these days, so it seems prudent to try to empty the room if at all possible.)

Once the classroom has been emptied, I would go to my office and immediately call the campus cops and aprise them of the situation.