As a professor at the University of Wyoming, I don’t want guns in my classroom. My resistance is not rooted in political ideology, nor in lofty philosophical arguments, nor in the hypocrisy of politicians excluding guns from the legislature while permitting them in classrooms, nor in messy sociological data about mass shootings, nor in clever interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Although all of these might make for lively debate, I’ll grant the reader whatever view s/he wishes to defend
If you believe that you have a right to carry a concealed weapon into a school, I won’t argue. My resistance — perhaps I should say my deep disappointment or even sadness — emerges from a belief that doesn’t divide liberals from conservatives or pacifists from gun owners but rather from a perspective that unites Wyomingites.
I’ve lived in this state for 27 years, and the best teacher I had regarding what it means to be rooted here was the late state representative Jim Hageman. I helped him understand rangeland grasshoppers, while he helped me understand Wyoming. I had the easier lesson to convey. Jim maintained that we didn’t need lots of government-funded social services, not because people weren’t in need but because helping folks was what neighbors should do. And he walked the walk. Jim and Marion cared for a slew of foster children, and he was named National Parent of the Year in 1996. The nearest I can come to a term for the Wyoming way is communitarian libertarianism: If we look after one another, then we don’t need government looking after us.
You see, if we really care for our neighbors, we don’t need to carry guns into our schools to shoot the student who intends to kill his classmates and teachers. We’ll have communities where the single parent struggling with the disturbed child is noticed and receives help, where the angry and depressed college student has professors who aid him in accessing mental health services, and where the bullied and isolated kid has a community that provides a sense of worth and dignity.
Allowing guns in schools and on college campuses is an admission that we don’t look after one another, that we aren’t living up to our ideals — and that we’re defeated or, even less Wyoming-like, that we’re quitters. As much as we aspire to be a place where people care for one another, HB 105 was a heartbreaking expression that we are prepared to abandon our identity. Our legislature was poised to admit that we lack the courage of our convictions. It is this poignant realization, not whether a particular bill passed, that demands our deep and continuing consideration. Unless we confront the meaning of HB 105, don’t be surprised if similar recognitions of our cultural decline appear in future legislative sessions. And if they do, maybe we should resurrect our old slogan: “Wyoming. Like no place else on earth” and revise it to declare: “Wyoming. Just like every other place in America.”
But we have the potential to be different. Wyoming towns — and even what passes for our cities — are small enough to pull off this sort of neighborliness and compassion. They’re not like where I grew up. Albuquerque has 553,000 people, about the population of Wyoming. There weren’t nearly that many people when I was a kid and most of the neighborhoods were safe in the 1960s. At least the houses didn’t have burglar bars on the windows and doors like they do today.
I remember going back for Christmas when our kids were little to find that my parents had installed these devices. I was overwhelmed by two feelings — a sense of sadness that the city of my youth had failed so miserably that the people resorted to locking themselves behind bars, and a sense of gratefulness that my children lived in a state where people were free of such debilitating fear. My parents were free to live behind bars to protect their property, and the legislature sought to free me to arm myself in the classroom. Somehow, these don’t feel like liberties.
We can argue about the weapons, motives, and mental states of mass killers, but here’s one aspect that seems clear. They are local. These violent young men live in the communities where the murderous rampages occur. If teachers are toting guns in Torrington, they’re not protecting themselves from a kid who spiraled down into evil while living in coldhearted, urban anonymity. No, they are prepared to shoot a young man who lives in their own community.
“But wait,” you say, “carrying a gun allows me to protect myself and others.” No matter how it might be phrased, in the end we are protecting ‘us’ from ‘them.’ When did our towns become us-them places? What if we look after ‘them’ through the lens of compassion rather than through the sights of a gun? It’s as if we’ve all been deputized into a new government agency — the Personal Security Administration (PSA). Not unlike the feds giving into terrorism and filling our airports with TSA agents who violate our privacy, Wyoming’s PSA gives into fear and fills our schools with state-sanctioned vigilantes who know what’s best for us.
I want to live someplace special, where communities feel an obligation to look after everyone, not to prepare to shoot anyone. And I want to work for a public university that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, a place that is big enough to provide students with a hundred opportunities to make a difference and small enough to talk to one anguished student and thereby make a difference. Maybe I’m safer if a student in my seminar is carrying a gun, and maybe I’d be safer if I wore a Kevlar vest while teaching, but I don’t want to live and work where we prepare to shoot and be shot. I don’t want to be a part of failure. I want a Wyoming where people know which family is in trouble and which kid is in decline.
Maybe the NRA slogan about people, not guns, killing people is right in some sense. But I think Wyoming has — or had — a more profound observation: Guns don’t protect people; people watch out for each other.
Jeffrey Lockwood is a renowned entomologist and accomplished writer/philosopher who first arrived at the University of Wyoming in the 1980s to conduct groundbreaking research on grasshoppers, insecticides and biological controls. In 2000, Lockwood turned his attention to the arts and humanities and became a professor of philosophy and creative writing. He is the author of Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic Books 2004), Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Skinner House 2002), and other books. In February 2012, Lockwood was featured on WNYC’s RadioLab for the podcast episode “Killer Empathy.”
Interested in more of Jeffrey Lockwood contributions? Read these WyoFile features:
— “Behind the Carbon Curtain; Art and freedom in Wyoming,” July 2012
— “Six-legged Creatures; Lessons from locusts and beetles,” November 2010
— “Insect Intellect; The literary turn of UW entomologist Jeffery Lockwood,” by Susan Gray Gose, June 2011