As children growing up in the 1960s, we conducted a harmless school drill called ‘duck and cover.’ Can you remember this one? Or how about this one: ‘This is a test. For the next 60 seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.’ In those days we faced nuclear weapons and MAD—mutually assured destruction. In our community, a tremendous cave served as the ‘fallout shelter.’ We could always go there in case someone used Weapons of Mass Destruction, or so we were told. What innocent days they were.
Today our pupils—and even their teachers—are ducking under their desks once more, only this time the enemies are not the Soviets but their own classmates and colleagues wielding modern-day WMDs: AK-47s, “pump guns,” and “Glocks.” This is not a drill or test, this is reality. Today there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide; there are no fallout shelters against these weapons.
Gun control remains today the chicken or egg debate it has always been. Some say guns cause violence, while yet others contend that guns deter crime. Regardless of one’s views on the issue, people on both sides of the dispute should recognize that the origins of this violence are cultural in nature. The gun is merely a reflection of what our society has become: breathtakingly violent. With an estimated 90 firearms for every 100 citizens, the United States is easily the most armed nation on earth. By comparison, only 39 out of every 100 Iraqis own weapons, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. Sadly, 314 American soldiers died in Iraq in 2009, but 509 citizens were murdered in Chicago in the same year. And even though the violent crime rate has decreased in the last two years by nearly three percent, the United States is by far the most violent nation in the Western world.
Our children are 19 times more likely to perish by gunfire than children in other industrialised nations. They are also nurtured on a permanent diet of voyeuristic violence. Estimates indicate that the average American child will see up to 40,000 TV murders before reaching adulthood.
A by-product of this violence is our overcrowded penal system. With more than two million people in jail, America is, quite literally, an ‘incarceration nation.’ The USA has 700,000 more people behind bars than China, a nation with an authoritarian government and five times our population. With only five percent of the world’s population, we oversee 25 percent of all the world’s prisoners. This cycle of violence is costing —and killing—us.
But surely our schools must be oases remote from this cycle of endless violence. Someone once said that universities are islands, places where scholars can learn and contemplate in peace. The same goes for our schools: they should be sanctuaries of learning and growing up; safe places where pupils learn to resolve their disputes peacefully. But in this case, our report card is miserable. Just think of the running tally: University of Alabama—three dead; University of Texas at Austin—17 dead; Columbine High School—13 dead; Virginia Tech University—33 dead; Northern Illinois University—six dead; Louisiana Technical College—six dead; Jonesboro High School, Arkansas—five dead; And closer to home: Richland High School, Lynnville—two dead; Heath High School, Paducah—three dead; Central High School—one dead; Campbell County High School—one dead. Since 1966, more than 170 pupils, university students and teachers have perished by gunfire. And let’s not forget the even greater number of maimed and wounded, the recent shooting at Inskip Elementary serving as a tragic example.
Fully preventing firearms from being brought covertly to our schools and universities is basically impossible. Allowing faculty and students to “pack heat” is also not the answer. Our schoolyards and campuses should not take on the character of the “OK Corral.” But more important than any concrete measures or laws to prevent weapons from appearing in the Ivory Tower or on the schoolyard is the urgent need to confront and change the cultural environment that glorifies gun violence as a regrettable but inevitable method of resolving disputes. Do we really need to see literally thousands of graphic murders on TV and in the movies each year? Should we buy our children video games that encourage them to mercilessly “kill” their virtual opponents for fun? Let’s be honest here: guns don’t kill Americans, our culture does.