Teaching in a Time of Hate and Violence

IMG_3810The First and Second Amendments of the United States Constitution, along with their current legal interpretations and applications as they relate to our public schools and universities, weigh heavily on my mind—especially this week in the wake of the latest in the string of school mass murder shootings and in the wake of the latest in the string of “public square” free speech debates at the University of Washington where I teach.

The Second Amendment right of citizens to bear arms should not include the right of angry, violence-loving individuals to own and use assault weapons on our school children as has happened in rapid-fire, soul-numbing fashion in our country. It should not include the right to bring—and use—firearms to the public squares of our universities (as happened at my own university last January during a “free-hate speech” protest/counter-protest on Red Square, pictured above with our grand Suzzallo Library in the background. See the Seattle Times article “Couple charged with assault in shooting, melee during UW speech by Milo Yiannopulos” by Mike Carter and Steve Miletich, April 24, 2017) Of course, we need better mental health services throughout our country, but this is not about mental health, it is about saner gun safety regulations.

Gun-related violence in our country is a major public health issue. Although hampered by the successful lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association to curtail public health research since 1996 (see: The Atlantic article “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Guns as a Public-Health Problem? by Sarah Zhang, April 15, 2018), we do have sufficient evidence to start making positive changes. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article with amazing graphics, “How to Reduce Shootings” (February 15, 2018) illustrates some of these options. I do take issue though with his point that gun-violence deaths at our schools pale represent just a small fraction of the total number of gun-related fatalities (including suicides) in our country. That does not take into account the detrimental health effects of the daily very real threat of school shootings on the millions of students, teachers, coaches, and administrative staff members at all of our schools, colleges, and universities.

And as to the First Amendment right to free speech that includes hate speech—because one person’s hate is another person’s love or something along those lines? Having grown up during the Civil Rights era and personally benefiting from the rights to both free speech and academic freedom, I do understand (even if I don’t like) the fact that a known White Nationalist group (sponsored by the UW student club College Republicans) was allowed to speak at the University of Washington campus last Saturday. What I do not understand and do not agree with was the fact that other legitimate UW scheduled events that day—as well as the two UW libraries on Red Square—were forced to close/be cancelled because of the credible threat of violence incited by this event. A white nationalist hate group, in effect, closed the major libraries of our public university for an entire day, and in the name of free speech? Our library’s mission statement includes: “advances intellectual discovery and enriches the quality of life by connecting people with knowledge.” Our libraries are core elements of the teaching, research, and service mission of our public university. Their work cannot be allowed to be curtailed by hate and violence.

#enough  of all of that.

Nurses for Gun Control

Walmart gun control
Walmart gun control (Photo credit: tsweden)

U.S. Representative from New York State, Carolyn McCarthy, is a nurse leader to be proud of. A nurse for thirty years, a gun control advocate and Congresswoman for almost twenty years, she knows about this public policy (and health) issue first-hand. In the 1990’s her husband was killed and her son (and only child) seriously wounded in a random shooting on a NYC commuter train. Congresswoman McCarthy is a senior member of the U.S. Congressional Committee on Education and Workforce and is a member of the subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. She has led hearings on cyber-bullying and violence in schools. Here is part of what she wrote yesterday in response to the horrendous Connecticut school shooting:

“Leaders in Washington from both parties, and groups like the NRA, all say that now is not the time to talk about how gun safety laws can save lives in America.  I agree, now is not the time to talk about gun laws – the time for that conversation was long before all those kids in Connecticut died today.

We owe it to our children to work harder to reduce gun violence.  The Second Amendment is the law of the land but it was never intended to allow murderers to take the lives of innocent kids.  It’s our moral obligation as policymakers and as parents to do more to save lives.

I hope the President’s words about taking ‘meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this regardless of the politics’ stay true as we continue down this road again.”

Another nurse who has recently spoken out for sane gun control, is NYT Opinion page author and nurse, Theresa Brown. In her article “The Human Cost of the Second Amendment” (9-26-12), she takes a ‘nurse’s eye view’ of the effects of gun violence by bringing the reader into the emergency department and morgue. She writes, “… because to really understand the human cost of guns in the United States we need to focus on gun-related pain and death.”

It is worth remembering that the U.S. has the highest rate of firearm-related deaths (including homicides, suicides, and unintentional deaths) of any of the world’s high-income countries. One in every five deaths in people less than 20 years of age in our country is related to firearms. Having guns stored in homes is associated with a threefold increase in risk of homicide (of the people living in the home) and a fivefold increase in the risk of suicide (especially for teenagers and young adults struggling with mental health issues.) Florida and six other states (with lobbying funding from the NRA) have attempted to prohibit doctors and nurses from asking patients (and parents of young children) about gun ownership as part of standard health and safety screening questions within a health care encounter.

The direct medical costs resulting from gun-related injuries and deaths (including suicides) in our country are over a billion dollars every year, and the cost of lost productivity is thirty-four billion (source: American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement “Firearm-related injuries affecting the pediatric population, in Pediatrics, vol 130/5, Nov 1, 2012).  Clearly this is a nursing and public health issue. Clearly our Founding Fathers (and the Founding Mothers who fed and supported them) did not intend to have such a “… state of enabled and murderous mayhem…” when they included the Second Amendment (quote is from Theresa Brown’s NYT article linked above).

Congresswoman McCarthy is right in stating that the time for this national conversation was before the homicides of twenty children and their teachers, or the homicide/domestic violence of the mother of the twenty year old killer, or the suicide of the young man who killed them (and who clearly had unaddressed mental health issues.) But if you weren’t part of the solution before, be part of it now.

Consider joining a national gun control lobbying and education group such as the nonpartisan Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Consider signing a petition to ask President Obama to start a national conversation about gun control (linked from Greg Dworkin’s Daily Kos article “A national conversation about gun control” 12-15-12).