On Wednesday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, once again, another normal school day erupted into tragedy. Seventeen families lost someone they loved. Social media devolved into fractious shouting matches slinging words like hand grenades as they turn away, cover their ears and protect themselves from the fall out. Few stop to mourn. Fewer still pause to calmly gather the data, listen to the stories, evaluate the evidence and make the changes this reflection prescribes. Beneath all the noise lies the truth, a harder yet ultimately more comforting truth than many are willing to face. The answer to violence is never more violence. Only when we stop selfishly clinging to our own lives and misguided imaginings will we be able to confront the evil in this world most recently manifested as a troubled 19-year-old boy returning to his former high school and taking seventeen lives.
Our misguided imaginings take shape through manipulated facts and logical fallacies. These misguided facts fall on both sides of the debate. For example, an article has circulated declaring that in the first seven weeks of 2018 there have been 18 school shootings. Many conservatives leapt on that article, quick to point out that some of those incidents included things like an accidental fire when a third grader pressed the trigger of a school security officer’s gun and unrelated shootings such as a robbery that happened to occur in a school parking lot. Those on the other side take the number and distort the facts by letting others assume that “shootings” mean incidences of mass casualties, like that which happened at Parkland. The group that collected the data defined their criteria as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.”.
Other fact distortion comes with incomplete evaluation of the data. For example, one article I read harped on the fact that 30 years ago students brought their guns to school for target practice and nothing like this happened because society and their parents taught them well. Leaving aside the logical fallacies which I will address in the following paragraph, this particular article presented an incomplete argument through distorted facts. First, the article’s author includes photos from the 1960s and 70s. Thirty years ago was 1988. Columbine occurred merely eight years later. Second, the author drops in the sentence that automatic weapons like the AR15 were available back then before walking away leaving the reader to fill in the pieces. The author makes no mention of the specific availability of the weapon, the design of weapons available at the time or any other specific data. The reader ends up filling in the gaps with personal knowledge and assumptions.
The distortion of facts leads quickly to logical fallacies aided by a refusal to listen and participate in civil discourse. I have encountered a couple of examples of these fallacies. First, many rush to the generalization that we must arm teachers because the reason these lunatics target schools is because they know that schools are gun free zones. This line of thinking perfectly exhibits the peril of hasty generalization. People who indulge in this fallacy fail to consider the fact that these perpetrators, for the most part, are not spree killers. These perpetrators choose these targets because they have been bullied or have some other sort of grudge, some other offense has been perpetrated against them in their mind. They have a motive for choosing the school.
Second, I personally encountered an attack from someone in my church, on social media, via the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. This person asked if I would not be willing to protect my students after I stated that I would never carry a gun or use one to take the life of another person. I responded that I would indeed protect my students even if that meant sacrificing my own life. This person’s next response presented the false dichotomy by asking if they had missed the part where I said that I would be willing to shoot the gunman who burst into my classroom. The false dichotomy is this. Either I carry a gun and shoot the gunman to protect my students or I do not protect them at all. When one runs to the extremes, you cannot possibly accurately reflect on the situation because you cannot see the whole picture.
That leaves my reality. My reality takes shape based on the following inputs: my profession, my education, and my beliefs. First, I teach in a public middle school. We have security procedures in place, procedures put into place after previous terrible incidents. People ask what I would do if the gunman burst into my classroom. The reality of the construction of the building, including the locked door, makes that scenario highly unlikely. Do we have a response for the pulled fire alarm scenario of Parkland? Not yet. I have confidence that that will be addressed. Additionally, I know the approximate developmental level of my students. They do not have the ability to make logical, reasonable decisions. Even if I were suitably trained and the weapon secured, I would not want that additional responsibility in addition to the ones I already carry.
Second, I have education as a historian. This education compels me to research the entire story before I draw a conclusion. I love statistics, as many historians do, and because of this love, I know how easily statistics can be manipulated and also wielded as tools of manipulation. Before I rush to judgment, I need to know the context of the information with which I am presented. I mentioned a few examples previously.
Finally, I believe firmly in the value of every human life, value derived from the fact that God created man in His own image. For this reason, carrying and using a gun will never be the way that I choose as defense. I will fight with everything in me to protect all those in my care. I will not, however, sink to taking the life of another human being. Sin makes me just as reprehensible in God’s eyes as this troubled young man who chose to take the lives of seventeen people, something that he will never be free from as long as he lives.
That leaves one question at the end of all this. What should be done? How can we prevent something like this from ever happening again? My first answer tends toward the pessimistic. As long as sin exists in the world, man will continue to inflict tragedy on other men. A true pessimist would throw her hands in the air and give in to the inevitable. I refuse to accept that response. No, if we hope to effect change for good, we must first grieve for those lost, grieve without letting that grief become obscured with hot, angry shouting. Next, with deliberate, yet determined calm, we need to gather the data and place that data within the appropriate context. Then, we need to be willing to set aside personal opinions, open to the fact that something we once held dear may be wrong. Only a fool persists in that which has been proven ineffective. Once that has been done, cool heads must come together, evaluate the evidence, reflect upon the effectiveness, and make the hard decisions that must be made.