Open Letter From A Teacher Who May Take A Bullet For Your Child

Hey America, I’ve been reading your response to the latest school shooting, and I think we need to have a little talk.


There's always a pivot away from talking about guns. The pivot is pushed by the NRA, broadcast by right-wing media, and parroted by my conservative friends as though it was their opinion before they were told to say it by Fox News. It used to be "Mental Health." But that is hard for the NRA since the Republicans they bribe every election cut mental health funding and repealed an Obama rule so that it would be easier for the mentally ill to get guns. Plus, the mentally ill commit fewer gun crimes than those who are undiagnosed among us, so that was always a red herring anyway. It stigmatizes mental illness to distract from an unrelated problem, and people are starting to realize that's even worse than "thoughts and prayers."

One of the new anti-regulation favorites is that teachers like me should carry guns in school. I can’t stress enough how shockingly ignorant this idea is, both as a teacher and a gun owner. My job is to teach your kids, America. To do that, I need them to be thinking about how to analyse literature or organize an essay. I need them focused on my lessons and feeling safe in my room. And I need to be thinking about whether they are putting that comma in the right place, not whether or not they might reach for the gun in my holster. More guns do not lead to more safety. If that were the case, with 300 million guns in this country, we would be the safest place in the world. But anybody who knows anything about guns knows they shouldn’t not make us feel safe. They should make us hyper-vigilant because guns are dangerous. Police officers have to be constantly aware of the danger posed by their own firearms, and they are also keenly aware that their guns make people feel nervous. Any cop worth her salt would tell you that loading up a room full of guns would not, and should not, lead to a more casual learning atmosphere. Know who wants you to believe that putting guns in every classroom would help? The people who would sell those guns. Please don’t make my classroom into your warzone in order to prop up the gun industry, America. That “solution” is just stupidity.

After the most recent school shooting, I’m seeing a lot of people repeating a new talking point: There's "moral decay" in this country. I'm guessing they want us to think the increase in mass casualty events would be remedied by people going to church more or voting for the Republican party. Yeah, the party that pushed for a pedophile to be one of their Senators and chose a guy who ran on stoking racial fear and who has a history of cheating on his wives and committing sexual assault to be their candidate for President. You know, return to Republican family values.

Guess what, America? This time, the NRA talking point is right. We do have "moral decay." If we hear about 17 people dying in a school, and many people's immediate reaction is to look for any way to argue to keep more guns in more people's hands, we do have a moral problem.

Jefferson's formulation "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is in that order for a reason. If you think your liberty to own a gun trumps someone else's right to welcome their living child home from school at the end of the day, you have moral rot in your core that you need to confront, America. You have a moral cancer, and it's not caused by declining church attendance or single parent families. It's caused by a political ideology that says me, me, me. My gun. My tax cut. My wall. It says your pursuit of happiness is not my problem. Your liberty is not my problem. And now it's saying your life is not my problem.

This is going to be an uncomfortable conversation, America. Americans fear partisanship. No matter how tribal we are when we vote, we don't want to admit we have the same fervor when it comes to our parties as we do when it comes to our sports teams. But parties stand for policies. They have platforms. So let's stop pretending. No political party is perfect. But in the same way you would root for your sports team even if they lose, even year after year, but wouldn't root for them if they started shooting people on the field, you should have core beliefs that you can honor in the voting booth and speak about publicly when one party acts out your values, but you need lines that can't be crossed. When one party loses its way, say so. It’s time to say so, America.

Conservatism is not the problem. As a Progressive, I recognize the value of conservatism. We need people who are progressive to push this nation forward, and we need people who are conservative to pump the brakes and get us back on track when we're off course. But the current Republican party is not conservative in any way. They are barrelling ahead so fast the Democrats have become the ones saying, "Slow down!" The Democrats are not progressive enough for us Progressives, but that's because they are trying to be the bulwark against a Republican onslaught of nativism, misogyny, bigotry, and greed motivated, at its root, by a dogmatic adherence to an Ayn Rand Objectivist ethos that selfishness is virtue. Well, we're watching the effects. This ethos may or may not produce this school shooting or the next one. Is a school shooter motivated by the White Supremacist website that told him to kill, or the Jihadist Imam who told him to kill, or the toxic masculinity that tells him a girl doesn’t have a right to say no when he asks her out on a date? We may never know what goes on in the minds of these shooters. But the current Republican ethos does produce our country's response to this shooting, and to the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. It tells people to watch these horrors and immediately scramble to protect their guns rather than protecting children. It tells them that particular knee-jerk response is okay, that they can still look themselves in the mirror and think of themselves as good people because they are protecting the American way of life from dangerous people of color, from Sharia law, from some Stalinist dystopia which started with a soda tax. It tells them they are right to be selfish.

It's not easy to tell someone they are wrong. It's uncomfortable. They will be offended. They will be defensive. And most of the time, they won't come around. Trust me, America, no matter how many times I say that I have been wrong before, that I’m sure I’m wrong about things now, that it’s okay to admit when we’re wrong, that I will still love and accept them no matter what, some people will never back down. It’s tempting to give up, to throw up one’s hands. But I refuse to give up on my country. I keep believing Americans will stand up and say, “We are a community, a group of people who need to live together. An ideology that puts personal freedom to harm the country above the right of other Americans to live, an ideology of selfishness, is unacceptable.” Whether that ideology of selfishness manifests as taking away someone else’s healthcare so some people can be multi-multi-billionaires instead of just billionaires, or making sure more Americans die in forest fires and floods and hurricanes so some people can pump more shale oil, or sacrificing someone else’s child in school so others can hold on tighter to their AR-15s, this ideology is consistent and consistently toxic to living with other people in a community. It’s unpatriotic. It’s wrong. And people who put their own favorite liberties before their neighbors’ lives are not “good.” They’re only slightly more decent than Trump’s “very fine people” who marched through an American city chanting Nazi slogans. Reasonable people can have legitimate disagreements about how we’re going to live together. But when someone crosses the line to an inherently anti-social ideology, this is not an area where we can simply agree to disagree. In this case, agreeing to disagree is like telling your doctor that the cancer in your lung or testicle or breast is balanced out by the healthy cells in the other lung or testicle or breast, so you’ll let the cancer and healthy cells just hang out together and agree to disagree about whether you should live. The current Republican ideology is literally weaponized selfishness, and that is cancer to a community.

The Republican Party is not irredeemable, just as my Republican friends on Facebook are not irredeemable. But the party is wrong, and so are they. It can come back and be a valuable part of American policy making and public discourse after all the people who have signed on to this ideology of weaponized selfishness are removed from office. The next generation of Republicans will see their predecessors scuttle off to be high paid lobbyists for their favorite donors, that next generation will read the political tea leaves, and they’ll come back, maybe with a new name, as a party that wants to figure out how to offer constructive conservative responses which seek to help all Americans, people of color, immigrants, women, the LGBTQI, and our children in our schools. But the current generation, the ones who just shot down a clean DACA bill because they wanted more restrictions on legal immigration to keep America whiter, the ones who want to take away people’s healthcare coverage and Social Security and Unemployment/Disability Insurance and literally take food away from children in order to teach people to stop being sick or old or poor, they all need to go. The ones who want to make sure that the most dangerous mass shooters can have the easiest access to guns in order to make it equally convenient for responsible gun owner who are begging, begging, begging for them to make it more difficult for us, they need to all be voted out. I am a responsible gun owner. Please, America, make me have a safe for my guns (I have a safe). Make me take a safety class (I have, but Hell, I’ll take another). If I am ever accused of stalking or assaulting someone, don’t wait until I am convicted; take my guns away the moment I’m arrested, and don’t give them back until I’m found not guilty. And America, since we have all agreed that it’s okay for you to prevent me from having a nuclear weapon so I’m obviously not keeping guns in order to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Military, if you decide that some of my guns are not the kinds that private citizens can have unless they are in their state’s reserves (you know, “a well regulated Militia” where people wear uniforms and follow the orders of an elected civilian official) you can absolutely take those kinds of guns away from me. I used to be duped by that rationale, that the Second Amendment was about citizens having the means to overthrow an oppressive government. That was before I learned enough about U.S. history to recognize that our Founding Fathers were far more concerned about slave revolts than preserving their means to plot a coup against some future tyrant. I was wrong. See how easy that is, America? I was wrong. So here’s the thing, America: You can place some other restrictions on me and still be well within the limits of the Second Amendment, or you can even make a new Constitutional Amendment that repeals or replaces the second, and I even if I do not like it, I will obey it. Know why? Because I like Americans more than my guns. It is more important that I live in community with the people around me than that I get to have my way all the time.

So, America, please reflect on your reaction to this latest school shooting. And the last one. And the next. Maybe you cried alone and in the dark after you heard the news, America. Maybe you prayed. And maybe those expressions brought you some personal comfort. Your gods, if they are listening at all, have clearly decided to wait for the last 18 years since Columbine for you to get off your ass and do something. At this point, they are probably a little miffed when you bring them into it, since it just makes them look impotent. But by all means, America, pray if it makes you feel better. I just want you to think about what you say when you come back to the public square, on Facebook or Twitter or TV or your local newspaper. Those records are going to be there for a long time, America. History will be able to see if your first reaction was to barf up the latest lines from the gun industry or, worse, to bark out, “Screw your kids. Get your hands off my guns!”

Trust me on this. I’m a teacher. I’m the one who will run towards the shooter while your children run away, America. I’m not allowed to tell my students what their politics should be, and I take that seriously. But I do teach them how to read between the lines. That’s my job. They are getting pretty good at it, I’m proud to say. They can tell that your obligatory expressions of grief before you veer off into the next anti-gun-regulation talking point are just fluff. They hear you loud and clear. They know you are saying you don’t care about their lives as much as your guns, America. They get it. They’ll remember. This will haunt them.

Well, it will haunt them if they survive past Graduation Day.