IN SCHOOL LESSONS ON FEAR AND LIBERTY
A few months ago, at the beginning of the school year, my school district pushed out a series of new school security regulations. The district was responding to concerns from parents after the devastating shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas back in May. There, nineteen students and two teachers were killed. Uvalde was the bloodiest of what turned out to be many school shootings this last year.
Included in the new regulations was a prohibition against doors and windows being open. In Uvalde, the shooter was able to gain access to a classroom through an unlocked door. Locked doors are, according to experts, the “first line of defense” against a potential mass shooter. In fact, rumor had it that the door accessed in Robb Elementary was propped open with a wedge. Consequently, my school district declared war against door wedges. District personnel were dispatched to every school to make sure all doors and windows were secure and all schools and classrooms were free of the dreaded wedge. One of these wedge warriors yelled at me–my door was wedged! May God have mercy. He then confiscated my contraband wooden shiv. We’re talking high stakes here. (sorry)
At one point, word came down that not only were doors and windows to be locked at all times, but all windows were to be covered in order to keep that potential shooter from seeing in the classrooms. So, not only did we lose the freedom to enjoy fresh air in our classrooms, but we also lost sunlight. I have plants in my room. I was frustrated when this requirement hit my inbox. I covered the slotted window on my door and pulled the blinds in my classroom. When one of my students asked why I was covering the windows I explained the new policy. The student then asked why the district would require us to cover our windows I expressed my frustration by saying, “because guns make us free!”
That student went home and told her parents her version of what I said. The parents did not respond by contacting me for clarification. This is, after all, the Free State of DeSantis. In this state, parents lodge their complaints with their school board representatives, cc’ing the school principal, letting the higher-ups know that they have a rogue teacher making political comments in class. Of course, they cc’d me as well, to let me know that the higher-ups have been informed of my trespass. That they referred to me in the third person is proof that the parents had no intention of asking for clarity. their intent was to intimidate me into silence.
As a teacher, I’m expected to police the things I say, regardless of the context. Anything said in class is subject to parental oversight and might cost me my job.1 Legislation passed in the last couple of years has made me significantly less free in my professional life. That I’m a gun owner is largely irrelevant. Who can I point that gun at to get my academic freedom back?
Regardless of the backlash, my larger point, albeit flippant, is valid. I live in a nation awash in guns. We have more guns in the United States now than ever before. And yet, my freedoms continue to be eroded. Simple freedoms like being able to prop my door or open my windows to get fresh air in my classroom are denied because at any given time an active shooter can start actively shooting. Every month, teaching my subject areas is interrupted so we can practice locking down in the event of an active shooter.
Hell, I am literally required to carry a panic button on me at all times. With this technology I can shut down the entire school in the event of an active shooter–or what I think might be an active shooter–or I might just panic and hit the button too many times–or…–or…–or… Does this sound like freedom to you? It sure doesn’t feel like freedom.
Last week someone made a “swatting” call targeting my school. Suddenly the alarms went off and the screen in my classroom announced a lockdown. As trained, my class became silent. I closed the blinds over my windows and turned out the lights. This was not a drill. I played the odds that the emergency was off campus. This happens often. People exercising their right to bear arms anywhere near a school elicits a lockdown, putting on hold the students’ right to learn. My goal was to keep my students calm. I told my students that I didn’t think this was a real threat, but just in case, when I give the signal to move, everyone needs to get away from the door and grab something that can be thrown. Nobody is coming through that door today!
To put this in perspective, I had twenty-five students in my classroom at that time. One of whom was my own daughter, by the way. Even professional soldiers, fully trained and armored, do not go into combat with the burden of looking after and caring for more than two dozen scared kids.
My students did an exceptional job keeping their fears in line and staying calm. Other teachers had other strategies, like barring the door. One teacher used a winch-tie to secure his door and was preparing a jar of sulfuric acid to throw at a would be attacker.
Not everything went as planned, however. The alarm was sounded during lunchtime. My school has a beautiful cafeteria, one whole wall of which is glass allowing plenty of sunlight. It also allows a would-be shooter unrestricted visibility of everyone in the dining area. About six hundred students had to be moved into the kitchen where aluminum slides could be drawn and the students could hide. Hundreds of scared kids and, let’s face it, equally scared adults, were crammed into a confined space with no visibility. Some students who were using the restroom or may have been in the courtyard when the lockdown was announced were locked out and on their own. They pounded on the doors to the kitchen, begging to be let in. At one point there was a loud noise, reportedly a pot had fallen from its hook and sounded like a gunshot when it hit the floor. There was a panic in the room. Some students, as trained, broke from the room and left campus. Some were trampled and shoved.
In short order the campus was swarming with SWAT teams and police. In less than twenty minutes local police had secured the school and determined that there was no threat. All was safe. Students were instructed to return to the next period class. By this time, panicked parents were pulling up to the school, having been notified of the alarm, trying desperately to find out if their children were safe, or if they were now among the countless senseless tragedies that unfold without redress in a country as free as ours.
At this point my goal was to try to normalize the day as quickly as I could. We’re all okay. There was no danger. I’m from the carry-on school of dealing with trauma. The quicker we can get back to normal, the better. This worked for some students, but many were falling apart–especially those who had been in the cafeteria! They were crying. Shaking. Angry and scared. Their world had, for about twenty minutes, fallen apart, shattering their sense of security, their delusions of safety.
And there was nothing that I could say or do in all honesty. Because the bottom line is that they are not safe. They are living in a society awash in an absurd amount and array of guns. We’re the most heavily armed society, perhaps in history. Because of this, they are not free.
Here’s what I wrote on social media the next day:
This post speaks to my earlier flippant comment. The rhetorical association of guns with freedom is arguably the most persistent myth justifying the United States’ absurd gun policies. A qualitative assessment of the influence of U.S. 2nd Amendment rights on schools shatters this myth.
The archetype of the American gunslinger defending liberty against the tyranny of those who might threaten it is nothing more than dark fantasy.2 I addressed this issue over ten years ago and thought, after the lockdown, I would revisit to see if the myth could even stand against a quantitative analysis. It can’t.
The process was simple (I’m writing a blog, not an analysis for the American Sociological Review, I focused on simple correlations, not having time to do more comprehensive p-tests or chi2). I asked a simple question. Does Gun Ownership correlate to Freedom? I hypothesized that there would be a slight positive correlation. After all, free societies should be more liberal with regard to gun ownership. Furthermore, free societies tend to be wealthier…allowing for greater access to guns as an economic resource. However, I did not believe the correlation would be strong. Also, I wasn’t going in blind. I had done the analysis before.
To draw the correlation I pulled from two indexes of freedom: The CATO Institute’s Human Freedom Index (HFI) and Personal Freedom Index (PFI), and Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index (GFI). I then collated these indices against data offered by the World Population Review on Civilian Gun Ownership.3 This data was collected from Small Arms Survey. Right off the bat there was a clear problem with the Guns/Freedom relationship. The top two gun-holding nations on the list were the United States (HFI 8.44, GFI 83) and Yemen (HFI 4.17, GFI 9). Sweden and Pakistan, for instance, had similar gun ownership rates. China (GFI 9) had higher gun ownership than the Netherlands (GFI 97), which had similar gun ownership rates to Haiti (GFI 334).
Regardless, I wanted the numbers. The first thing I did was run a comprehensive correlation on all nations listed. The first thing one notices from doing this is just how insipidly absurd U.S. gun policies are. The scatterplot tells the story:
The United States is such a ridiculous outlier that it distorted the graph. Yemen is that little isolated dot near the 60 on the X-Axis. Every other nation in the world was clustered under the 40 on the X-Axis. I decided to run the data by excluding the United States. To my surprise, it actually improved the correlation? The scatterplot was much more sensible. Regardless of how I ran the numbers, the results were the same. The correlation (r) ran around .25. In other words, it was consistent with my hypothesis, a positive but weak association.
So, then I decided I would try to eliminate some of the noise. How much of that correlation is just a representation of the vast social and cultural differences between, say, the Netherlands and Haiti, or Japan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Toward that end I decided to focus just on advanced nations. I separated out the OECD nations and reran the correlation. Again, I ran the numbers with the United States’ distortion and without. Much of the noise, however, disappeared. Without the United States’ distortion, the numbers look the same: r is around 25(23 in the example given).
Then I thought I would take it one step further. Each country had a particular level of freedom and all had a certain level of gun ownership. So, which countries were definitively free? Furthermore what did gun ownership look like for truly free nations? So for each index I determined that significantly freer societies would be those that were more than one standard deviation above the mean. Partly free nations would be within the standard deviation, but above the mean. Partly unfree nations would be below the mean, but within the standard deviation. Unfree nations would be more than a standard deviation below the mean. This helped me divide up the nations according to a more objective measure of freedom.
For less than free nations, the data was much too noisy to be of much value. One interesting observation was, Partly Unfree and Unfree nations tended to have negative correlations. Using CATO’s numbers, Unfree nations had a meaningful correlation of around -.5. We can infer from this that in Unfree societies, guns at the very least make things worse. Correlations were low for Partly Unfree and Partly Free. Correlations also tended to be low for Free if they included data for the United States. Again, the correlation continued to hover around .2-.25, with one exception. When the United States was included in the scatterplot for CATO’s measure of Personal Freedom for Free Nations, the correlation became negative. The negative correlation disappeared when the U.S. Distortion was eliminated.
This led me to think about the noted absurdity of where the United States falls on the scatter plot. The CATO data placed the United States squarely in the “Free Nation” category5. Most of the free nations had some level of gun ownership, with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore having almost no gun ownership and Canada and Finland on the other end of the scale with over 30 guns per one hundred people. The United States with 120 guns per one hundred people was simply too far out of the cluster! It’s clear that gun ownership has very little to do with freedom. On the other hand, gun ownership certainly doesn’t seem to take away from freedom if other factors are in play. So, what might a sensible policy look like?
Gun ownership in free societies tends to hover around 15 guns per one hundred people with a standard deviation around 11 (excluding the U.S. Distortion). So, a range of 4-26 guns per one hundred people would be plenty of guns for a free society.
What’s clear is that the United States gets no advantage when it comes to freedom by holding so many guns. We have four times as many guns as the top gun owners among free nations and yet cannot boast four times the freedom. In fact, according to the measures available, the United States is less free than most, if not all, free societies.
Furthermore, we are plagued by tyrannical structures that are conspicuously missing from the CATO and Freedom House rubrics. If there were a measure for “kids feel safe in their schools” or “people can enter public spaces without worrying about being blown apart by gun-wielding maniacs” it’s likely that the U.S. Freedom Index would be much lower.
Policies that would bring gun ownership down to 30 per one hundred people, or hell, even 60 per one hundred people, would make me and my students significantly freer without trampling 2nd Amendment rights.
It would, however, put a huge dent in the gun industry, currently worth almost $30 billion. Of course, it’s easy to make money when over half a trillion dollars worth of costs are externalized. Holding gun manufacturers accountable for these costs would be passed on to consumers, causing the price of guns to skyrocket. In theory, this could significantly reduce demand.
In theory. But it would also increase the value of the 400 million guns that are already floating around in the United States. Therein lies a big part of the problem. Restricting guns at this point will not solve the problem when there are already so many guns in the market. No matter what we do at this point it is far too easy for any idiot to get their hand on a deadly weapon.
Me, my peers, and my students are stuck. We will continue to be forced to live under fortress conditions, just as free as the victims at the Alamo. All so ammophiles can roll around on piles of guns in masturbatory ecstasy. Freedom is a twisted concept in America.
- In this case, my job was secure. I responded to the email, giving my two cents. My principal, off the record of course, offered me her full support–so long as nobody knew about it. After all, her job could be on the line as well. The school board member never responded. The parent never offered more elaboration into her claims about my bias. The full email conversation is here.
- And let’s face it. The American Gunslinger archetype is white…and the threats to liberty are often ThosePeople. There’s a clear racist undertone to mythos.
- Gun ownership as measured by guns per one hundred people has some problems as it does not take into account that some people own no guns while others own multiple guns. I would have preferred to use a measure of gun-owning households but could not find a comprehensive enough list. So
- Which, of course, demonstrates a bit of a problem with the freedom indices. Is Haiti really “freer” than China? Um…weeeeelllll. Maybe on paper. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.
- Freedom House, according to my preferred measure, categorized the United States as Partly Free. Freedom House’s own measure defines the United States as Free.
Below is the e-mail from the disgruntled parent with my comment. Names (except mine) have been redacted. I’ve always been told that emails to public schools are public records. Okay then.