Educators and Guns

“I couldn’t sleep,” Larry Schall said. He and his wife had watched the memorial service from Newtown the Sunday after the massacre and had heard President Obama talking about the young children who had been murdered.

He lay awake for hours, he told me. “At about 2 in the morning I gave up on sleep and went downstairs and wrote a letter,” he said. The next day he shared it with a good friend, and later in the day their edited version became an open letter to other college and university presidents.

Larry is Lawrence Schall, the president of Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and his co-author is Elizabeth Kiss, the president of Agnes Scott College, also in Georgia, two leaders and two institutions that you may not have heard of before Newtown.

The letter specifies the following measures:

• Ensuring the safety of our communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on our campuses and in our classrooms
• Ending the gun show loophole, which allows for the purchase of guns from unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check
• Reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines
• Requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks, access prevention laws, and regulations to identify, prevent and correct manufacturing defects

“I thought if we got 50 presidents to sign it would be a homerun,” President Schall said, but their powerful message resonated, and within a few days more than 200 presidents had signed it. The group acquired a name, “College Presidents for Gun Safety.”

Today over 330 presidents have signed, almost all of them the leaders of private institutions (perhaps because they don’t have to answer to governors and legislatures).

Is that a homerun? Depends on how you count, it seems to me. America has about 4,150 colleges and universities, which means that just under 8 percent have signed the letter. However, given that it’s tough for the presidents of public institutions to step out on this limb, we ought to consider the universe of private institutions, some 2450 in all. That brings the number to just over 13%.

I urge you to read the names of the 330 or so institutions and see which institutions are NOT there. You will find Cornell College (IA) but not Cornell University; Teachers College, Columbia University but not Columbia University itself; and three Notre Dames (Notre Dame College (OH), Notre Dame de Namur University (CA) and Notre Dame of Maryland University (MD) but not THE Notre Dame, the one in Indiana with the Golden Dome.

You will find Macalester, Colby, Mount Holyoke, Spelman, Middlebury, Colorado College, Davidson, Hamilton, Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin and Centre College and a number of other outstanding institutions, but where is Duke? Why no MIT? You will look in vain for members of the Ivy League, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and other household names.

Perhaps the most glaring omission is Virginia Tech, the scene of the worst gun massacre in our history. I asked Virginia Tech about that, but so far no one has responded.

The Association of American Universities, representing 60 of the top institutions, issued its own statement (pdf) on January 2. While that letter lacks the power of the Schall/Kiss letter, it does call for Congressional action.

On Monday, February 4, College Presidents for Gun Safety will join with Mayors Against Illegal Guns (representing 800+ mayors) for an event on Capitol Hill, an effort to put pressure on Congress to pass meaningful gun laws.

Getting just 8% of higher education to sign on may not seem like a homerun, but–compared to the rest of public education–Presidents Schall and Kiss have hit a grand slam, maybe even an 8-run homer.

Here’s why I say that. Not long after Newtown, I got in touch with most of the leading K-12 groups. I believe that their generally ineffectual response to the mass slaughter of those 6- and 7-year olds allowed the National Rifle Association to frame the debate. And so, instead of debating whether we should ban the sale and possession of weapons of mass murder from our society, until just recently we have been arguing whether arming school principals and teachers makes sense.

Here are a few concrete examples:

The National Association of Elementary School Principals, which lost a member when Sandy Hook principal’s, Dawn Hochsprung, was gunned down, issued a statement expressing condolences that said nothing about restricting access to assault weapons. Instead, NAESP pledged to “do everything we can to strengthen laws and policies aimed at keeping our children safe and secure in our nation’s schools and communities.”

The 578-word statement on the website of the National Association of Secondary School Principals was devoted largely to opposing the NRA’s call for arming of educators. Only after 540 words did NASSP allude to the murder weapons, and then somewhat obliquely–and in just seven words: “And yes, it’s a matter of gun access.”

The National School Boards Association “does not take positions on social issues” like the availability of assault weapons, according to its General Counsel. “After Columbine, we turned our attention to identifying troubled students,” Francisco M. Negron said, “But now we will have to look at safety more broadly because schools are just another multiplex.”

Two young leaders seemed determined to offend no one with their public statements. Jonah Edelman and his organization, Stand for Children, declared after Newtown that “Real actions must be taken” but failed to say what those actions might be. His high-sounding statement (with an accompanying “Open Letter to the President”) demanded to know, “Has the moment arrived, at last, when decent people across our great nation have finally decided we’ve had enough? Will those of us who’ve consented to so much loss with our silence finally speak up and demand our leaders pass laws that decrease the prevalence of mass shootings?”

When I was in high school, stuff like that won the “Talks most, says least” category.

Michelle Rhee of Students First (the former Chancellor of the Washington public schools) appeared to be walking a tightrope. Fresh from helping Michigan Republicans pass anti-union legislation, she declined to take a position on another law passed by the the GOP-controlled legislature that would have allowed guns in schools. Her silence was seen as tacit support for the measure. Rhee couched her neutrality thusly: “As an education reform organization, we try hard to remain singularly focused on those issues that directly affect student achievement.”

After Newtown, however, Rhee apparently felt compelled to enter the debate–although not the one about assault weapons in society. Instead she weighed in on the NRA’s question: “Schools must be safe havens for teaching and learning — that is a basic obligation to children that comes before anything else,” she said. And so Students First is now against guns in schools but has no position on assault weapons in the larger society.

In sharp contrast to both Michelle Rhee and Jonah Edelman, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers did not mince words. “The AFT supports common sense gun control legislation, including banning assault weapons and large ammunition magazines, requiring thorough background checks and making sure that gun owners keep their weapons secure.”

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents more than 60 urban districts, also took a firm stand, albeit quietly: “The nation’s Great City Schools join with their mayors in urging tighter restrictions on the sale, possession, and use of assault weapons and other weapons designed to harm people.”

The National Education Association reacted to the NRA position: “Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control—this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms. Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”

The leaders of private schools took a strong stand. Calling themselves “Heads of School Against Gun Violence,” about 70 school leaders in New York City took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, formed a national organization, and began agitating for Congressional action. (Full disclosure: my wife, Joan Lonergan, is an active participant in the group.) As of this morning, 197 school heads have signed the the petition, and an additional 3063 teachers and other school personnel have signed an accompanying letter of support.

I applaud Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, who spoke first. On the day of the mass murder, the veteran civil rights leader issued a powerful statement, excerpted below:

“… How young do the victims have to be and how many children need to die before we stop the proliferation of guns in our nation and the killing of innocents? …
“This slaughter of innocents happens because we protect guns, before children and other human beings. …
“Each and all of us must do more to stop this intolerable and wanton epidemic of gun violence and demand that our political leaders do more. We can’t just talk about it after every mass shooting and then do nothing until the next mass shooting when we profess shock and talk about it again. …
“We have so much work to do to build safe communities for our children and need leaders at all levels of government who will stand up against the NRA and for every child’s right to live and learn free of gun violence. … Our laws and not the NRA must control who can obtain firearms. …
“Why in the world do we regulate teddy bears and toy guns and not real guns that have snuffed out tens of thousands of child lives?”

Many years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Some 40 years later Illinois senator Barack Obama assumed that history does bend towards justice but said, “It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice…”

Unfortunately, most K-12 educators have not put their hands on that arc. By failing to seize the opportunity to lead on what is arguably the critical issue of our time–the health and safety of our children–too many public educators are providing a disappointing role model for the children in their charge.

As Oglethorpe University President Schall told me, “Every graduation we tell our graduates to go boldly into the world and stand up for what they believe, but we weren’t doing it ourselves. It’s time we did.” Kudos to him, to Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College and to all the educators who are demanding action.

13 thoughts on “Educators and Guns

  1. John,
    > I have read your piece with interest and have every expectation that
    > Congress will offer up some pieces of what is called for as is
    > demanded by the public. It will certainly save a life or two or many.
    > However, there is no possibility that mass shootings will end. There
    > will be another…and another. There are 300 million guns sloshing
    > around in this country and virtually none of the litany of mass
    > shootings that have occurred in recent times would have been prevented by the measures proposed.
    > We have suffered a most tragic killing of a young girl in Chicago in
    > the last day or so. Bad luck being in the middle of a gang turf war in
    > the city with the toughest, most stringent gun laws in the
    > country…and the most gun killings! Nothing proposed would have saved this young person.
    > For an excellent piece putting much of this in perspective, I commend
    > to you the Amanda Ripley article in the January 28th issue of Time magazine.
    > We have had this much noise before and sadly, we’ll have it again. The
    > politicos must pander. To change what we can change, endure what we
    > can’t…and know the difference…will not soon affect their efforts.
    > Tom


  2. Not long after I posted this, another school shooting occurred, this one–sadly, ironically–in Atlanta, at a middle school. No fatalities, thank heavens


  3. Given your comments about public colleges and universities, it is interesting to see all the branches of the University of Maryland having their presidents sign.

    As expected Presidents of college associated with traditional peace churches like Quakers and Mennonites have signed, including my alma mater Haverford and our arch-rival in athletics Swarthmore

    As a teacher in an inner-city school, I have no trouble speaking out for meaningful action against gun violence. As an individual whose voice carries some weight because of my blogging reputation, I have written on this even before the shooting at Sandy Springs, and I have appeared on radio shows and internet TV shows (Huffington Post Live) since the shootings.

    I will continue to be outspoken on this issue because we lose too many lives – of children to be sure, but of so many other people. I include suicides and accidents as gun violence, because absent the guns it is highly unlikely those deaths would occur.

    It is an unacceptable cost to lose so many lives each year.

    But besides the deaths, we too often ignore those who survive, with the cost of heroic medical responses that save lives, but often leave the victims of the gun crippled an/or maimed for the rest of their lives.

    If we as a society are unwilling to address what we are doing to ourselves and our people, then we are immoral as a society.


    • My bad for not giving a shout out to Maryland’s public leaders. No other state comes close. Is this the influence of Freeman Hrabowski, I wonder?

      Look at Indiana: no IU or Purdue but Ball State!!!


  4. One more thought –

    Increasingly those who speak out against gun violence and/or who urge even the most reasonable restrictions on access to guns, such as universal background checks on all sales and transfers, find themselves the targets of at least implied violence by some who resist all restrictions on access to guns. There should be serious criminal action taken against those who would strive to suppress opinions with which they disagree by threatening violence of any kind. I am well aware of the guarantees of free speech including in cases such as Brandenburg v Ohio, but I am unwilling to see bullying of any kind by implied threats of violence as a means to suppress speech with which one disagrees. You do not get a heckler’s veto of opposing points of view.

    And once and for all, Congress needs to restore the ability of federally funded institutions to do research on what the cost of guns actually is. Were Americans to understand this, the pushback against the gun industry would be massive, even by many who own and use firearms.

    It is interesting that the financial company that owns the holding company with the largest share of the gun industry is named Cerberus, after the 3-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Hades. Our gun policy, or if you will lack of a meaningful gun policy, is condemning far to many to an unbelievable hell.


    • Thanks, John. Maybe the K-12 field is so inundated by efforts to crush its spirit of independence and so cowed by the attacks upon them that they ignore all requests to speak up–and taking a stand on anything controversial.

      But what explains the Harvard’s, Yale’s, etc???


  5. Thanks, John. Perhaps the ability of the NRA to control so many elected officials is directly proportional to the silence of the heads of the nation’s great universities.


  6. After the atrocity at VA Tech, not to mention too-many-to-count mass shootings at schools and colleges, not to mention too-many-still-more-to-count daily gun slayings in cities and districts around the nation, our college and university CEO silence is unbelievably sickening. Higher education presidents are making the US Congress look good by comparison. Who’d have thought this possible?

    Please visit the blog where free gun control bumper-laptop cover stickers are available in exchange for a pledge of ANY amount to The Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence or the Gabby Giffords-Mark Kelly PAC for sensible gun regulation in America.


  7. The fear and paranoia created by the NRA is spilling over into the population at large, not to own a gun, but to worry about the person approaching you on the sidewalk — Is he carrying? Will he feel threatened? How many of us worry about that today, who never worried about it in the past? Those of us who retain a certain sanity about safety and society have got to speak out. There are certainly more of us than there are gun manufacturers.

    One place to do that is in Washington, DC. Organizations like those named in this article, as well others, should get together and organize a mass March on Washington. Bring the message directly to those we elected to serve all constituents, not just a monied few. Perhaps on the day of the march the schools within a hundred mile radius of Washington could bus their students to the city to participate in a great educational experience. They could learn what’s good about Democracy and standing up for what is important. That idea may be impossible, but a March is not. It certainly delivered the message during my generation, it would now.


  8. It turns out that others are organizing. I received this email yesterday:
    “I am following up on my tweet regarding the work of our project, The Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus ( and perhaps, some advice from you.

    I have enjoyed reading your posts over the last month or so (thank you for posts). I wanted to briefly mention that our Campaign is now just over 4 years old and is comprised of nearly 360 colleges and universities in 40 states who oppose changing state law to allow the carrying of concealed, loaded handguns on campus by students, faculty and staff . The issue of arming faculty and students has garnered a fair amount of attention of the last few years and we have been lucky to play a small role in helping to defeat legislation in many states across the country (see our 2012 press release: )

    The horrific tragedy of Sandy Hook has undoubtedly moved large segments of our country to call for action by our federal officials. Public engagement is crucial for any reforms to have a chance of passing in Washington, and groups like College Presidents for Gun Safety, are an important voice in the fight for reform of our nation’s gun laws. I have worked on the gun issue for 16 years and understand the importance of enacting strong gun laws (on both the state and federal levels). That’s why it’s my hope that College Presidents for Gun Safety will consider joining our campaign to help support their public counterparts in keeping guns off campus.

    My hope is that College Presidents for Gun Safety will continue to push for federal reforms of our gun laws and also act locally by supporting our efforts because all schools should be gun free.”


  9. Dickinson College, the first school chartered in the United States of America located in Carlisle, PA, took this pledge the first week of January.

    The president of the school speaks here in the Huffington Post:

    “College presidents do not speak out on national issues today because the public deems them meddling when they reach beyond their profession. We have listened and remained silent — even about issues that affect our communities. Gun control and mental illness are two such issues.”


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