A degree of courage unknown

Why do you have so many guns?

My heart broke the moment I was asked this question. It happened four years ago while I was on a fellowship in New Zealand, on a day where I’d driven to one of the more remote areas of an already very remote island in the South Pacific. The elementary school I was visiting, Te Kura o Hiruharama (Hiruharama School), serves Maori children living in poverty, and they weren’t used to visitors from faraway places such as America. So to kick things off, I asked them what they most wanted to know about my homeland.

Why do you have so many guns?

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in an American school, I’ve been thinking back to this moment, hard though it is to do so. How could it be that those kids in New Zealand, living in one of the most remote regions of the world – how could their first and only question be about our guns? They didn’t want to know about our movies or sports or video games or anything else kids their age usually are interested in. Just the answer to the one question they kept asking:

Why do you have so many guns?

I am no expert on the history of firearms in this country, but I do happen to live in Texas, and, not long ago, I read a masterful account of the brutally violent struggle between the tribes of the Comancheria and white settlers that took place in this state 150 years ago (Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne, if you’re curious). The settlers who encroached upon Comanche-controlled territory lived in constant fear of attack from roving bands of warriors on horseback. And because “law enforcement” was nonexistent in this part of the country for decades, the lives of these settlers quite literally depended upon their guns. For some, that history is surely relevant to answer the question:

Why do you have so many guns?

But it’s another piece of history that preoccupies my thoughts about the relationship between our past and present culture, and it stems from an incident described by Frederick Douglass in his searing autobiography. In his mid-20s and still enslaved, Douglass moved to Baltimore and, while working as a ship-carpenter, he was savagely beaten by a group of white carpenters he worked alongside. Douglass knew he had no hope of bringing his attackers to justice – because he knew no white person would offer testimony on his behalf­:

Even those who may have sympathized with me were not prepared to do this. It required a degree of courage unknown to them to do so; for just at that time, the slightest manifestation of humanity toward a colored person was denounced as abolitionism, and that name subjected its bearer to frightful liabilities.

In 1835, the mere act of speaking a few words on behalf of a beaten black man was unimaginable to urban whites. Yet, only 30 years later, slavery—at least its legal form—would be totally abolished.

Why is this history relevant? As I write this essay, the political debate in America about preventing future school shootings is drifting toward a dystopian satire almost beyond belief. Our president proposes to arm hundreds of thousands of teachers so that they might gun down future attackers. He thinks we can prevent murderous gun violence in American schools by putting more guns in schools.

It is a small mercy that both teachers and the public appear to be rejecting this proposal as absurd on its face. But most of the proposed alternatives—banning bump stocks, raising the minimum purchase age—stop far short of abolition. To echo Douglass, the slightest manifestation of that idea sounds equally (if not more) far-fetched as arming our teachers.

And that is the answer to the question those New Zealand children asked me, the same question that we all should be asking after 17 high school students died for no reason.

Why do we have so many guns?

We have so many guns in this country because it’s impossible to imagine getting rid of them all. But students are speaking up, and our collective conscience is changing. And perhaps we will come to know the degree of courage we will need to ensure every child can go to school without fear of being slaughtered.

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