Other Voices

Prudent professors, well-armed classrooms

In our national firearms debate, the side that favors less gun control seems to have momentum, unimpeded by the barely noticed, day-to-day death toll from guns or regular mass shootings.

In the meantime, what should college professors who are concerned about guns in classrooms do?

Professor Emeritus Daniel Hamermesh has decided to call it quits.

Hamermesh has taught Introductory Macroeconomics at the University of Texas at Austin for over 20 years, but in response to a new law in Texas that permits concealed weapons in college classrooms, he announced last week that he won’t return to teach next fall, when the law takes effect.

I suspect that proponents of more guns in more places would say Hamermesh is overreacting. But at the heart of their argument is the proposition that we live in a very dangerous world.

Hamermesh is only trying to protect himself.

Gun proponents contend that only more guns can make us safe. Their logic is undermined by the level of gun violence in our already gun-saturated culture.

We have more than one gun for every man, woman and child in the nation, and we’re powerless to stop the killing.

The logic is undermined also by a recent study in the National Journal – cited by the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne last week — that indicates a significant correlation between the strength of gun control laws in the various states and their levels of gun violence.

States with stronger gun laws have less gun violence. You can look it up.

But no one is paying much attention to this intuitive finding, and Hamermesh faces an immediate, practical problem: By next fall he could be standing in front of large classrooms full of anonymous students, some proportion of whom will be carrying handguns.

He might hope that his armed students will be well-trained, mature, cool-headed, judicious and, of course, good shots. But it’s easy to see why he might be skeptical.

The bar for obtaining a handgun in our country is quite low and, as the recent Umpqua Community College shooting indicates, our country hasn’t erected many barriers between handguns and the mentally unstable.

Hamermesh teaches big lecture courses of up 475 students, which, he says, makes it impossible for him to tell if a student is disgruntled or having mental problems.

Instability and anger are often well hidden until they break the surface.

And in college classrooms, the latent instability of relatively normal people can be easily bumped off balance. Students have a lot invested in their success in college.

In fact, the decisions that professors make about students sometimes have bigger and longer-lasting impacts on their lives than those made in, say, small claims or traffic court, places where we do not allow firearms.

Even many “normal” students are struggling with self-doubt, anxiety and alienation.

And every semester, to some of them professors will have to say, no, your work’s not good enough.

So it’s hard to blame Hamermesh for wanting to get out of the potential line of fire. Many of his younger colleagues may not have his options.

One wonders if the only prudent option we’ve left for our college professors is to take up weapons themselves.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. jcrisp@delmar.edu