It’s Commencement season, and in speech after speech graduates are told that they can change the world, that they can carve their own paths, that their generation will address the massive problems left to them by others. As educators, we want our students to feel hopeful and creative — not complacent or fatalistic.
But it’s also another season of mass shootings. Another season of hearing “there is nothing we can do” because of our Constitution, our politicians and the lobbyists who rule them.
You’ve seen the statistics. The United States has about 5% of the world’s population and roughly 40% of the world’s mass shootings. Across the nation, there are more firearms in the land than there are people to fire them. In every country there is mental illness, alienation, resentment, racism, antisemitism and rage. Only in our country are these things combined with easy access to guns. There are murderous impulses everywhere, but only here are they so easily attached to weapons with gross lethality. “It’s precisely because they cannot legislate murder out of the human heart,” David Frum has underscored, “that civilized societies regulate the instruments of murder in human hands.”
But contrary to the messages we give our students, we hear again and again that efforts at common sense reforms are “a non-starter.” This fatalism can be self-fulfilling, but happily there are now signs from Congress that some significant steps toward gun safety may become law. We must keep the pressure on legislators to make a serious gun safety bill law.
Our Commencement messages should ring true. We don’t have to live this way. America has faced daunting and deadly challenges in the past, and we have enacted laws and regulations in response. Not that long ago, people smoked in trains, movie theaters, classrooms and everywhere else. When smoking bans were being considered, there were protests about personal liberty. No smoking in restaurants? People shouted, “it couldn’t be done – not in our culture!” Folks were so certain that New Yorkers, for example, would never accept being prohibited from smoking in bars. But research about tobacco smoke was clear, and regulations were passed in New York and all over the country.
Going further back a few decades, there were several cities that were so choked by pollution that cars, buildings and clothing were quickly covered in grime. Lungs, too. It was easy to be fatalistic and assume the air couldn’t be changed. But that was wrong. Research on pollution helped show how to remove from the atmosphere the poison folks thought it was necessary to breathe. Pittsburgh is a great example of a city whose air quality many thought impossible to change. It was Pittsburgh. They were wrong. New laws curtailed the right to pollute, creating a city safer for everyone. There is still pollution, of course, but we didn’t let fatalism prevent us from making things better.
These public health efforts were resisted at every turn by special interests determined to protect their profits. Tobacco companies and industrial polluters hijacked the language of liberty to defend their right to inflict massive harm. But in the end, scientific research showed how we could clean up our public spaces, and that we could do so without destroying freedom or economic development. Breathing in America became safer, and universities helped make that happen.
Today, guns are making Americans unsafe, and once again we hear the claim that there is nothing we can do. The gun lobby has in the past succeeded in blocking research that might show there are regulations that would make our communities safer. Once again, we hear the defense of personal freedom even as racist extremists target black communities, even as children and their teachers are gunned down by people who could have been prevented from having easy access to massively murderous weapons. Some business leaders stepped up after the Parkland school shootings, and they are being urged to do so again. Special interests encourage complacency. As Michael Tomasky underscores, gun violence “is happening, over and over, because certain people who very obviously have the power to try to stop it are refusing to do so and letting it happen.”
In Texas, “letting it happen” is too weak an expression for its government’s abetting of gun violence. According to the state’s Attorney General, public universities would “exceed their authority” if they prohibit concealed handguns on campus. Professors would be “exceeding their authority” if they forbade students from packing heat in their classrooms.
We don’t have to live this way. When confronted with overwhelming pollution, researchers showed how this was cutting lives short and how we could start cleaning up the atmosphere. Scientists at universities showed skeptics (some of whom were funded by tobacco companies) that second-hand smoke kills, and then public policy researchers showed how common-sense regulations could reduce the lethal affects that someone’s “freedom to smoke” had on others.
Now, universities should double down on research on guns as a public health issue – an issue we can address. We already know from historical scholarship, that gun regulations go way back to colonial times in North America and beyond that to English common law. We know that the weapons that the framers of the constitution had in mind when thinking of “well-ordered militias” have little in common with the lethality of today’s killing machines. We know that the risk of suicide is magnified because of easy access to guns. Scholars at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Wesleyan and the University of Wyoming are already working on these matters and we need more research on the effectiveness of age restrictions and the potential for “smart guns.” Research and public policy development are key, and universities should do their part. Universities should address guns as a public health issue energetically, just as they have with the work on vaccines, genomics, or….weapons development.
We don’t have to live this way. We know how to create regulations that reduce risk. This is not a call for banning guns; it is a call for universities to use their resources to target the most pressing public health issues created by open access to massive lethality. “Helplessness,” Jay Caspian King underscored, “is the sense that we will keep reliving the brutality of history over and over again.” But we are not helpless. We showed we could significantly reduce pollution, and we showed we could change personal habits embedded in culture and even addiction. University sponsored research can help us reduce the risks of gun violence.
We all should have learned in the last two years that fatalism is deadly. In concert with a variety of institutions, universities must support research that will contribute to the crafting of regulations to clean up this horrid, heartbreaking mess.