Nathan Deal: Colleges should focus on education rather than guns. But aren't they related?

The controversial campus carry gun bill gets a hearing today in the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting at 3 p.m.

It appears a warm Senate reception awaits House Bill 859, which w ould allow anyone 21 or older with a weapons license to carry a gun at a public college or university campus . Dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and athletic events would be excluded. reports the head of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, will not block the bill, telling reporters, “I look forward to being at the governor’s signing ceremony for the gun bill.”

Gov. Nathan Deal defended guns on campuses this week to, citing no repercussions from the 2014 legislation he signed expanding where Georgians can legally carry firearms.

"We heard all the hype that we're now hearing about campus carry, all the predictions of tragedies. All the predictions that we were going to open our state up to a Wild West scenario," the governor said.

When told of the concerns of college staffs over safety, Deal said, "I think they should be concerned about making sure that those students are taught and educated. That's their responsibility. The law will take care of the rest of it."

But professors are speaking up about the bill, including Dr. Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia.

By Matthew Boedy

To some the answer to campus crime – however mythical it may be – is a gun. And not just one gun, but many, concealed in backpacks, purses, and under coats by the “well-regulated militia” the Second Amendment honors. And as any "campus carry" supporter will remind you, one does not argue with a person aiming a gun at you. To rightly answer an armed robber, one must forgo "talking them out of it" and take them out.

University of Texas students protest a state law that expands the rights of concealed handgun license holders to carry weapons on campus. A Georgia Senate committee considers a similar law today.

In this theory, guns trump arguments, the Second Amendment over the First. To supporters of the campus carry bill, House Bill 859, words are only powerless weapons against violence, hopeless to stop anything. In short, you don’t bring rhetoric to a gun fight.

I, the professor of rhetoric, think they are wrong. But while adding to the chorus of criticism against HB 859, I can't deny the interesting position I find myself in. As a scholar of rhetoric, I have to acknowledge the long, complex history between persuasion and violence, words and weapons.

My words - all of our words - have a certain violence to them. We use them to get what we want. Whether we sweeten them with honey or empower them with a Trumpian tone, they are tools of force.

And if our goal is to save lives, we might consider how words save more lives than guns.

Consider this scene. Detective saunters into a café for his morning tradition of coffee. Robbers already inside slow play their presence. Once the cop leaves, they pull out their guns, corralling customers and employers to more easily take their valuables. Cop returns and invites robbers to meet his “friends,” Smith and Wesson. This is the ideal situation for supporters of HB 859, with a student (or professor) as the gruff and feared San Francisco law enforcement officer, “Dirty Harry” Callahan.

One robber aims to fire, but Dirty Harry fires first. A shootout ensues and fortunately but miraculously only robbers are killed. The scene ends with that line we all know, when the last living robber points his gun at the head of hostage: “Go ahead, make my day” Callahan says with a scowl. The robber is persuaded not to shoot.

What is interesting is Dirty Harry attempts to argue with the robbers. He does not automatically use his "right to bear arms" as a stepping stone to fatal action. He does not automatically use his willingness to shoot as reason for impatience. He does not allow “gun logic” to overshadow rhetoric.

[And let me add the robbers don’t seem afraid of the gun as much as the cop wielding it. His firing time, his aim. His bravado. I won’t wonder what this teaches us about guns in the hands of students and professors, especially me, who will never be confused for Dirty Harry. For the record, I won’t be getting a concealed weapons permit, and, if Texas is an indication, very few of my students will either.]

I want to consider what this scene – and the larger debate over “campus carry” - might teach us about the power of words and weapons. And how we must understand the difference of and need for the former.

First, there is no guarantee with either. There is no reason to believe the robbers in that Dirty Harry movie would back off due to his argument. [One of four did, after the other three were shot.] No reason to believe the shooters in San Bernardino would stop firing just because someone reminded them they were killing co-workers.

Like persuasion, there is no guarantee with guns, either.

There is no guarantee a 21-year-old college student with proper firearms training can take down a shooter(s). No guarantee even a mob of armed respondents won’t fail as well. No guarantee, like in the movies, that only robbers get shot.

The great teachers at my institution understand this. This is why they teach not toward certain outcomes but how to respond to difference.

I work at a “senior military college” – part of a group that includes The Citadel, Texas A&M, and the site of the most deadly college campus shooting, Virginia Tech. The teachers of our cadets teach leadership, including how to deescalate violence, not encourage it. And they produce heroes like those gun-less veterans who stopped a gunman on that train to Paris.

Instead of teaching a gun is always the response to a gun, they teach all types of responses to all types of situations. As the Marines say, how to adapt. [Another Eastwood line.] They teach these lessons because of the uncertainty we live with.

Listening to Georgia lawmakers supporting “campus carry” the only thing that seems certain is the inherent danger of being on a college campus.

My fellow teachers and I agree education is about acquiring through a rigorous yet imprecise process a faculty of dealing with uncertainty. It is about understanding how to respond – how to outthink, not outshoot. It is about asking the question when everyone else already has the answer.

In my classes, it is about learning when to speak, and when to not. For the military courses, it’s about learning when to shoot, and when to not. For both, it is about learning without a certain outcome in advance.

This kind of education is lessened by guns on campus. When guns and classrooms mix, a gun becomes another way to avoid uncertainty, another way to evade learning. Another way to avoid using words well, a skill so lacking today.

Sadly, guns on campus will do violence without being fired. Once we accept as normal the intrusion of guns upon a classroom, the essence of a classroom changes. To protect students from violence, Georgia lawmakers want to protect them from learning.

If HB 859 becomes law, we will have changed education from something uncertain, something risky, and something worth pursuing because of the pursuit itself to something automatic, something associated with “aim.” We will have finally wedded words and weapons, to the detriment of the former.

Lawmakers, I plead, don’t force students to learn while also considering their aim. Such an education is certain to be bad for us all.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.