“There’s a guy outside and he’s shooting people… We’re at Mountain View. He has a gun. He shot people, and he’s yelling right now.”
You couldn’t even imagine a student at UEA having this conversation with the emergency services as they sit helpless and terrified in their room at the Ziggurats. But on October 9th at around 1.20am, a freshman at Northern Arizona University (NAU) opened fire on four individuals, killing one person instantly. I woke up at 8.30am that morning, completely unaware of the tragedy that had transpired the night before on my campus. As I read the headline “Shooting at Northern Arizona University” on the BBC news website, my heart sunk. Yet, I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised. Just a week before, I remember reading about a mass shooting in Oregon that had joined the string of unnecessary deaths caused by gun-wielding maniacs. I knew, even before the shooting at NAU, that it was only a matter of time before I was reading similar stories with the exact same sorrow and regret about my own university.
I wanted to approach the topic on gun violence and shootings on university campuses in the most objective way I possibly could. Given that I am from outside of the United States, I find it particularly difficult to find justification or reason behind the fascination with gun culture in America. Especially as it is all but non-existent in the UK, aside from in the virtual dimension of our society. I try to understand the frontier mentality which has been such a persistent theme in the foundation of American history; the idea that there is a British redcoat, a Native American, a Mexican or in all seriousness, a tyrannical government in Washington which the citizens have a right to protect themselves from.
But then I remember one simple fact. I do not need to approach this topic dispassionately because, put simply, guns are a matter of life and death and as an individual with a sense of compassion and humanity, I don’t need any logical justification in my utter denunciation of these weapons. As a British citizen, you could argue that I have no place in this debate. But my home was attacked. NAU is my community. So, I believe that I have every right to speak out about it.
Why are shootings on university campuses and in schools so exceptionally shocking that they have the powerful effect of scarring the American consciousness? The reason is simple. It is because these places are beacons of potential and hopefulness for the future. We, as students and our parents, are all in acknowledgement that education provides us with aspirations and ambitions. It provides us with a path to a better future, not only for ourselves but to strive for improvement in the world. It is also the greatest social experience and community we will ever be part of. As my professor, in an extremely emotional state said to me shortly after the shootings, “universities are ivory towers and we are completely unconscious to the possibility that a sanctuary of knowledge could be attacked in such a brutal way by a fellow adherent to the philosophy of education. When we are attacked, we no longer feel safe in our towers.”
Freedom is such a conflicted term in the American language. For its entire existence, the responsibility of every American generation is to discover and protect its definition. The only argument that I can make about freedom is this: is the freedom to buy and own a gun so much more important than the freedom to live a life? We all know too well what arguments are made against this interpretation of thinking. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people!” and “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!” Before I go onto claiming that the logic of these arguments is almost entirely flawed, let me rephrase my earlier statement:
“Was the right of a student to have a gun for the sake of his own freedom more important than the right of Colin Brough to live his life?” There. Now we’ve personalised this. Because what really frustrates me is that Colin’s story will just become another case of a drunken confrontation turned into a tragedy. Now, we can talk about the “logic” of gun ownership.
“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Nobody necessarily contests this. Yes, a gun is a tool like any other which could be wielded by the wrong person to do terrible things. But what I would argue is that the “wrong person” is usually only wrong because of the power which a gun grants them. Are we to believe that this eighteen year old freshman was anymore flawed as a young, testosterone-fueled drunkard in another country where gun ownership is strict? As an Englishman, I am largely confident that if this confrontation would have occurred in England, it would have been an “in the heat of the moment” fist fight which would’ve ended with one or two broken ribs, a few cuts and bruises, and a night in a cell to sober up. So, my belief is that guns don’t kill people, guns empower people to kill people. They give a human the right to decide a life or death situation. And it is my belief that no single human should ever command such a responsibility, whether in his right mental faculties or not.
Secondly, I think that “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. So, for a second, lets put to one side that if guns were completely taken out of the equation, no situation like this could ever arise. Now, my simple point is this. In the murder of Colin Brough, where were the good guys with the guns? I can tell you where they were. They were called to attend the crime scene ten minutes after the bad guy had already pulled the trigger on four individuals. “What if the other students had guns?” could be a possible retort. I will say this once and only once to the dim-witted individuals that would ever make such a blindly stupid suggestion:
America. We are not in the Wild West anymore. The idea of two groups of students confronting each other like two rival gangs of cowboys outside of a 19th century Saloon, is not a narrative we should see played out after fighting two brutally violent and devastatingly fatal world wars.
So, let’s introduce strict gun laws, right? Well, not exactly. This is not a problem of access to guns, this is a problem of mentality. The deep-rooted flaw of America is also its most valuable asset – its commitment to freedom. In Britain, we accept strict gun laws and make it so that only a special division of policemen and the army should have access to them. Are we afraid that without guns we will be left vulnerable? No. We place our faith in our government in return for their promise of security. We sacrifice a potential “right,” so that we can be protected from harm. I’m not suggesting this is a necessarily perfect exchange, but in a country where we have faith in democracy, we believe that we will always be more powerful than those who govern us. What strikes me as ironic is that in a country like America, where those most patriotic believe their constitution is sacred, and that they are protected by the democracy to which they hold most dear, these are the people who continue to feel unsafe from the government that they have elected.
I’m going to use a piece of conservative logic to finish this argument, which is highly ironic when you consider those claiming to be “conservative” are most in favour of gun rights. Edmund Burke argued that the wisdom of a single generation is never more trustworthy than the experience of many generations. The Founding Fathers were a single generation in 18th century America who believed their notions and beliefs were profoundly true. They believed the world they lived in, where powerful governments were wicked and corrupt and where the world was unknown and dangerous, demanded the right of their citizens to own firearms. This may have been entirely true. But why 200 hundred years later, after experiencing the same tragedies and making the same mistakes, is America continuing to cling to the wisdom of a generation whose world is profoundly different to our own? We should never give up on the belief that we can change for the better. As students, it is our responsibility to learn from the experiences of the past, so that when we govern the world, we trust not only our human instincts but the wisdom of those who have died and who have been hurt by senseless gun violence.
The only positive feeling I can express about the murder of Colin Brough is this: we often criticise America for being too individualistic, too selfish and too ignorant. Yet the compassion, the unity and the feeling of inconsolable sorrow which emerged the following day is a testament to the kind of students and faculty which make up Northern Arizona University – an institution that I am proud to be a part of. This experience has not made me disillusioned with America. If anything, the spirit I observed across campus in reaction to this heinous crime has only made me more hopeful for the future. And when we marched together in solidarity, in memory of Colin Brough, I looked around the town that I currently call home and realised how utterly beautiful it was at the peak of autumn – how this is truly a place worth saving.
Joe Nutt studies American History with Politics at UEA