At the end of last week President Donald Trump prescribed a solution for tragic school shootings like the one in Florida on Valentines Day. Arm school teachers.
NPR broadcast what he said: “We have to harden our schools, not soften them. A gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer, that’s like going in for the ice cream. That’s like ‘here I am, take me.’ We have to get smart on gun-free zones. When they see ‘this is a gun-free zone,’ that means that nobody has a gun except them, nobody’s going to be shooting bullets in the other direction. And they see that, it’s such a beautiful target. They live for gun free zones. Now what I’d recommend doing is the people that do carry, we give them a bonus, we give them a little bit of a bonus, because frankly they’d feel more comfortable having the gun anyway, you give them a little bit of a bonus, so practically for free you’ve now made the school into a hardened target… You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school, too.”
In the Washington Post, James Hohmann juxtaposed the President’s and Wayne LaPierre’s words to demonstrate that a lot of Trump’s ideas came directly from a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, (CPAC) earlier in the day by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association:
“‘Our banks [are] more protected than our children at school,’ said LaPierre. ‘I want my schools protected just like I want my banks protected,’ said Trump.
La Pierre said ‘gun-free zones’ are ‘wide-open targets for any crazy madman bent on evil.’ Trump said ‘a gun-free zone to a killer or somebody who wants to be a killer [is] like going in for the ice cream’ because, ‘when they see this is a gun-free zone,’ that means that nobody has a gun except them, nobody’s going to be shooting bullets in the other direction.
The NRA chief spoke of ‘hardening’ schools. ‘God help us if we do not harden our schools,’ LaPierre said. ‘Schools must be the most hardened targets in this country.’ ‘We have to harden our schools, not soften them,’ Trump said a little later. ‘You want a hardened school, and I want a hardened school too.'”
Few people besides Trump and LaPierre seem to think arming teachers is a good idea. Lots of teachers have explained why they believe teachers carrying guns would make public schools more dangerous and they and others have described all sorts of concerns that arming teachers poses for possible violations of students’ civil rights. Disagreement with Trump’s crazy idea is so widespread that for the first time I’ve ever heard, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his former arch-enemy in the NY City Council and now New York’s charter school czar, Eva Moskowitz emphatically agreed. Mayor de Blasio declared: “I suspect the president doesn’t know anything about public schools. There’s nothing more terrifying than the notion of putting more guns in our children’s schools. The last thing I want to see is more guns in our schools.” Here is Eva Moskowitz: “Having teachers running around schools with loaded guns in close proximity to students may be the dumbest idea I’ve heard in my entire career in education.”
I have been trying to analyze the depth of my own distress about Trump’s suggestion, because while I’m sort of getting used to bizarre tweets and weird statements coming out of the White House these days, this one seemed like a new low. And yet, the people at CPAC cheered these ideas.
Paul Krugman’s NY Times column helped me put Trump’s response to the Florida tragedy in a broader context—clarifying that this is also about something beyond guns and the NRA: “Trump’s horrible idea, taken straight from the N.R.A. playbook, was deeply revealing—and the revelation goes beyond issues of gun control. What’s going on in America right now isn’t just a culture war. It is, on the part of much of today’s right, a war on the very concept of community, of a society that uses the institution we call government to offer certain basic protections to all its members… No other advanced nation experiences frequent massacres the way we do. Why? Because they impose background checks for prospective gun owners, limit the prevalence of guns in general and ban assault weapons that allow a killer to shoot dozens of people before he (it’s always a he) can be taken down. And yes, these regulations work.” (Emphasis mine.)
Krugman echoes the analysis of political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in a recent book written to define the appropriate role of government: “It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends…. Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)
In last week’s column, Krugman correctly links President Trump’s crazy idea about arming school teachers with other trends in the United States, including the failure of many states to set safe speed limits and the privatization of programs that can be universally and most effectively provided as the public responsibility of government: “What I’d argue is that our lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.”
In The Good Society, Robert Bellah and colleagues trace the idea of individualism back primarily to the seventeenth century political philosopher John Locke, whose thinking looked away from rule by an absolutist monarch and idealized individuals who agree to buy into a social contract. Bellah writes: “The founders of our republic imagined that the civilizing tasks of creating a democratic society and opening up unheard-of economic opportunities could go hand in hand.” But Locke’s theories, which strongly influenced the founders writing the Declaration of Independence, can be be read to affirm the social contract’s protection of our freedom or to emphasize personal liberty itself: “It is possible to interpret the fundamental commitments contained in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—in either way.” (The Good Society, pp. 86-87) Today there is a strong pull against emphasis on the social contract in American society and toward “liberty” defined as the rights of the individual—with this mantra: “Don’t tread on me.”
Krugman instead traces Trump’s newest idea that we ought to arm school teachers back to that other seventeenth century social thinker—the more pessimistic Thomas Hobbes. Here is Krugman: “In short, you might want to think of our madness over guns as just one aspect of the drive to turn us into what Thomas Hobbes described long ago: a society ‘wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.’ And Hobbes famously told us what life in such a society is like: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'”
I am not sure Trump’s idea about arming teachers really harks back to any debates by political philosophers, however. Trump’s idea probably derives from a far more recent source: the myth portrayed day after day in the cowboy movies he watched after school on TV in his youth or at the Saturday movie. Isn’t his armed teacher “solution” really just a fantasy about a Lone Ranger with a six shooter standing up to the madman with a semi-automatic rifle?
How pitiful is this as a serious proposal for what is becoming a recurrent tragedy in today’s increasingly unregulated, individualistic America? And what does it mean that the President seems compelled to pander to the N.R.A. when all the polls show that the vast majority of us want responsible gun control?