Concealed Weapons, Hidden Failures: What guns in schools would mean for Wyoming

The debate over allowing guns in schools isn’t about liberal or conservative values, but rather common decency. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons — click to view)
The debate over allowing guns in schools isn’t about liberal or conservative values, but rather common decency. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons — click to view)

Essay by Jeffrey A. Lockwood
February 19, 2013

As a professor at the University of Wyoming, I don’t want guns in my classroom. My resistance is not rooted in political ideology, nor in lofty philosophical arguments, nor in the hypocrisy of politicians excluding guns from the legislature while permitting them in classrooms, nor in messy sociological data about mass shootings, nor in clever interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. Although all of these might make for lively debate, I’ll grant the reader whatever view s/he wishes to defend.

Jeffrey Lockwood (Ted Brummond - click to enlarge)
Jeffrey Lockwood (Ted Brummond – click to view)
Jeffrey Lockwood (Ted Brummond – click to view)

If you believe that you have a right to carry a concealed weapon into a school, I won’t argue. My resistance — perhaps I should say my deep disappointment or even sadness — emerges from a belief that doesn’t divide liberals from conservatives or pacifists from gun owners but rather from a perspective that unites Wyomingites.

I’ve lived in this state for 27 years, and the best teacher I had regarding what it means to be rooted here was the late state representative Jim Hageman. I helped him understand rangeland grasshoppers, while he helped me understand Wyoming. I had the easier lesson to convey. Jim maintained that we didn’t need lots of government-funded social services, not because people weren’t in need but because helping folks was what neighbors should do. And he walked the walk. Jim and Marion cared for a slew of foster children, and he was named National Parent of the Year in 1996. The nearest I can come to a term for the Wyoming way is communitarian libertarianism: If we look after one another, then we don’t need government looking after us.

You see, if we really care for our neighbors, we don’t need to carry guns into our schools to shoot the student who intends to kill his classmates and teachers. We’ll have communities where the single parent struggling with the disturbed child is noticed and receives help, where the angry and depressed college student has professors who aid him in accessing mental health services, and where the bullied and isolated kid has a community that provides a sense of worth and dignity.

Allowing guns in schools and on college campuses is an admission that we don’t look after one another, that we aren’t living up to our ideals — and that we’re defeated or, even less Wyoming-like, that we’re quitters. As much as we aspire to be a place where people care for one another, HB 105 was a heartbreaking expression that we are prepared to abandon our identity. Our legislature was poised to admit that we lack the courage of our convictions. It is this poignant realization, not whether a particular bill passed, that demands our deep and continuing consideration. Unless we confront the meaning of HB 105, don’t be surprised if similar recognitions of our cultural decline appear in future legislative sessions. And if they do, maybe we should resurrect our old slogan: “Wyoming. Like no place else on earth” and revise it to declare: “Wyoming. Just like every other place in America.”

But we have the potential to be different. Wyoming towns — and even what passes for our cities — are small enough to pull off this sort of neighborliness and compassion. They’re not like where I grew up. Albuquerque has 553,000 people, about the population of Wyoming. There weren’t nearly that many people when I was a kid and most of the neighborhoods were safe in the 1960s. At least the houses didn’t have burglar bars on the windows and doors like they do today.

I remember going back for Christmas when our kids were little to find that my parents had installed these devices. I was overwhelmed by two feelings — a sense of sadness that the city of my youth had failed so miserably that the people resorted to locking themselves behind bars, and a sense of gratefulness that my children lived in a state where people were free of such debilitating fear. My parents were free to live behind bars to protect their property, and the legislature sought to free me to arm myself in the classroom. Somehow, these don’t feel like liberties.

We can argue about the weapons, motives, and mental states of mass killers, but here’s one aspect that seems clear. They are local.  These violent young men live in the communities where the murderous rampages occur. If teachers are toting guns in Torrington, they’re not protecting themselves from a kid who spiraled down into evil while living in coldhearted, urban anonymity. No, they are prepared to shoot a young man who lives in their own community.

“But wait,” you say, “carrying a gun allows me to protect myself and others.” No matter how it might be phrased, in the end we are protecting ‘us’ from ‘them.’ When did our towns become us-them places? What if we look after ‘them’ through the lens of compassion rather than through the sights of a gun? It’s as if we’ve all been deputized into a new government agency — the Personal Security Administration (PSA). Not unlike the feds giving into terrorism and filling our airports with TSA agents who violate our privacy, Wyoming’s PSA gives into fear and fills our schools with state-sanctioned vigilantes who know what’s best for us.

I want to live someplace special, where communities feel an obligation to look after everyone, not to prepare to shoot anyone. And I want to work for a public university that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, a place that is big enough to provide students with a hundred opportunities to make a difference and small enough to talk to one anguished student and thereby make a difference. Maybe I’m safer if a student in my seminar is carrying a gun, and maybe I’d be safer if I wore a Kevlar vest while teaching, but I don’t want to live and work where we prepare to shoot and be shot. I don’t want to be a part of failure. I want a Wyoming where people know which family is in trouble and which kid is in decline.

Maybe the NRA slogan about people, not guns, killing people is right in some sense. But I think Wyoming has — or had — a more profound observation: Guns don’t protect people; people watch out for each other.

Jeffrey Lockwood is a renowned entomologist and accomplished writer/philosopher who first arrived at the University of Wyoming in the 1980s to conduct groundbreaking research on grasshoppers, insecticides and biological controls. In 2000, Lockwood turned his attention to the arts and humanities and became a professor of philosophy and creative writing. He is the author of Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic Books 2004), Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Skinner House 2002), and other books. In February 2012, Lockwood was featured on WNYC’s RadioLab for the podcast episode “Killer Empathy.”

Interested in more of Jeffrey Lockwood contributions? Read these WyoFile features:
— “Behind the Carbon Curtain; Art and freedom in Wyoming,” July 2012
— “Six-legged Creatures; Lessons from locusts and beetles,” November 2010
— “Insect Intellect; The literary turn of UW entomologist Jeffery Lockwood,” by Susan Gray Gose, June 2011

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  1. The problem with the NRA slogan of good person with gun countering bad guy with gun is that it is strong in emotion, movie mythology and anecdotes, but horribly weak when it comes to solid data. The U.S. is awash in guns, so much so that the statistical odds are that a gun in your family (any gun owner in Wyoming) is statistically more likely to be used against a family member, or used to commit suicide, than in ANY encounter with an armed bad guy, at home, work, school, etc.
    That reality (dry statistic or bloody fact) falls on deaf ears because people are endlessly capable of rationalizing that they will never allow a gun to be used against a loved one or to suicide.

  2. As a Wyoming native and a blue dot in a “Red”neck state we are no different than any other Red state. “The gobment is out to get me and I’ll keel em dead if they try to get my gun”! Our ranchers always had a rifle in their truck to kill predators of their livestock, they didn’t feel the need to conceal carry, guns stayed at home or in the truck, no need to take them to the feed store, or grocery store or to the community hall but now the paranoid zealots have planted the seed of fear in our citizens, now we have a “Stand your ground law” which allows one to kill another human being with impunity. A PA senator with Texas interests is now representing “Our” interests in Washington? Our own lawmakers passing laws regulating and restricting our very humanity and personal choices, classifying citizens with their own religious beliefs, yet all in the name of “Freedom and Liberty”?
    If one has to be packing heat to feel safe, I feel truly sorry for you, and prey you don’t “Accidentally” kill an innocent in the name of protection of your liberties, if your number is up, no gun, knife or spit will save you!!
    P.S. The Government does NOT want your guns, they just want to protect us from those who want to use them against US!!!!

  3. Dr. Lockwood
    Excellent writing as usual. I have had the privilege of being a student in your guest lectures and presentations at Wyoming Weed & Pest Council meetings. I also have the privilege of hearing of my relatives experience of your wisdom, of which they speak highly. Very highly. I was a student at UW in the late 1990’s and there were students already carrying concealed. The students were good students , respectful, community citizens, and trustworthy people. The type of people you talk about in your article. They are people that are now respected people in Wyoming and elsewhere across the U.S. I felt that it wasn’t necessary to carry concealed but I never felt threatened. I can also guarantee that if someone opened fire at UW then there was/is a good chance of repercussions to the shooter/assailant. People in the U.S., and in Wyoming, do not feel that they are doing anything risqué or anti- establishment by carrying concealed weapons. They are doing what is natural to them and exercising the rights granted to and defended by millions of American lives. Look at the Casper hair saloon incident last fall. A female patron was carrying a firearm in her purse when the establishment was robbed at gun point. She pulled it out and trained it upon the attacker and he fled. I’m not saying that a university or school is the place for weapons, but it isn’t the worst place to carry them. Or any business for that part. I offered a legislator my opinion that elementary and secondary educators, a handful in each school, be offered firearms traing at the Wyoming Police Academy in Douglas. Offer them a bonus. I would feel safe and comforted if the general public knew that there were trained people and firearms in the school and pre-school where my daughters attend. They would know there were people that were capable of firing back at their hate and vitriole (sp?). It just might make a difference to someone attempting to carry out a Sandy Hook in quiet Powell, WY.

    I wish my wife and I didn’t worry about these things, but we do because the threats are clear and present. I’d rather go to jail than risk the lives of my precious wife and daughters. These are tough times and the only answers are various shades of gray. We no longer live in an altruistic society, unfortunately. If I had the answers I’d be a rich man but I am not. Sigh.

  4. The thing is…..I guess you’d never know if a weapon was concealed. This way, you can continue to strive for the Wyoming utopia not knowing. Hopefully when that day comes when crime no longer exists, all the concealed gun owners can lay their guns down. They can lay them down in secret, as it’s their right in the pursuit of happiness, including utopia.

  5. Thanks for writing this essay. More guns, more militarism, makes us more coarse, unfeeling, non-thinking people. Is this who we want to be?

  6. At this very moment every key that I own is hanging in the ignition of the unlocked car out in front of my unlocked house. My rifle is in the closet where it belongs and the ammunition is locked up and put away where the kids can’t reach it. This is where I grew up, and as far as I’m concerned everyone is still welcome to visit MY WYOMING.

  7. As a senior citizen who has only lived in Wyoming 26 years my comments will most likely be ignored or attacked .But I can tell you that Wyoming is a violent state and always has been. They only take care or protect those who agree with their particular way of life or political leanings. Or the priviledged ones who have been here a hundred years, or whose name invokes some kind of awe.
    I have never owned a gun , nor am I of the political persuasion that says we must allow the energy companies to destroy the environment and own our universities .
    In a small town in this state, even if you are the most law abiding and kind citizen, it matters not if someone who has a gripe against you is someone in power .They can carry concealed even if they are mentally unbalanced, threaten you and get away with it because it is a he said she said thing.
    Then because of all of the above I have been made a recluse in my own home. I no longer go to events of any kind where crowds gather. No more eating out or movies. I do not even go to church since my church decided to allow armed individuals in . We live in a police state now . Don’t fear the Federal Government. Fear yourselves.
    I would suggest that the author of the article leave the country and move to Canada , Australia , England or any of the other countries who became civilized rather than give in to the extreme gun crazed culture that permiates the US.
    You can tell me to arm myself but that will not work. I am old and in poor health. So would never win in a shootout .
    However there is a more important reason that I will not own a gun. I can’t take another life. It is murder . I would rather lose my own life and gain my soul. It is ironic that we say we are a Christian country but ignore the teachings of Christ. Rather the state worships the NRA and teaches violence.

  8. What we would like the world to be like is irrelevant to reality.

    The generation before me talks about how they used to bring their hunting rifles to school and leave them in there locker to go hunting after school. There never was a problem. That is not the world we live in.

    Now a “gun free zone” is an invitation for an “active shooter” to go to a place where he never has to worry about someone defending themselves. We call that fish in a barrel. Washington DC is basically a gun free zone, and is also always in the running for murder capital of the U.S.

  9. First of all Professor— its not YOUR class room—- You may instruct but you don’t have a tittle to the property– second the only reason we are free is possession of arms—– if a shooter enters your campus and is killing folks you would prefer to cower and let your students be shot? YOU sir should be trained to protect those students our kids– my 5 year old can dial 911 but when a man is shooting a crowd it demands a quick response by whomever is there— its not a right- its a responsibility to carry and protect your neighbors– no matter how liberal and far fetched their ides— If ever need I would protect you– but you wont do that for our children? Resign you liberal wank and go where folks have common thoughts — Y’all want to hand your guns in go ahead– but in my home- my home state and my country you can bet my neighbors and myself will hold these arms until our last breath– they are in fact the only barrier we have to total meltdown in AMerica— The yellow in your spine glows—- Are you aware there is an indoor range on campus? It should be used to train staff and students—-

  10. Good article, yes this would describe our state 10-15 years ago. Today we have the issue of not caring, we have drugs in our schools, people from larger cities, an influx of people in the workforce that do not hold the same values. In our state we have rape, murder, and other crimes and those rates are not decreasing. Do we need a solution, yes. But whatever the solution it will be expensive either in dollars or lives.

    The best overall solution is a better educated person, we should be putting that as our top priority, because that person is prepared to face difficult situations in a logical manner.

  11. An excellent essay, Jeff, I believe that you’ve hit the bullseye. The culture of guns reflects a profound fear that some have of “the other.” I think it also reflects the failure of American culture and rather than finding real solutions, takes the easy way out and divides the world into good guys and bad guys. Regrettably, the gun debate, whether pro or anti, has dissolved into emotional sloganeering without any examination of facts.

  12. This is a thought provoking piece on a bill that was recently defeated in our state legislature that would have allowed guns in our classrooms and sporting events in Wyoming. I am proud of both representatives from Powell, Representatives Dave Blevins and Dave Northrup, for having the courage to vote against the bill. The bill, however, did pass in our House, but the members of the Senate Education Committee had the wisdom to allow the bill to die in their committee.

    There will be those who attack the author of this article, after all he has lived here for “only” 27 years (I’m looking at you Representative Hans Hunt and your ilk), but those who attack Professor Lockwood are missing his larger point: that Wyoming is special, or has been, but bills like this are an admission that the state and its people no longer are special. Professor Lockwood makes the point that the state has not reached the point of no return, but that we need to redouble our efforts to keep Wyoming special. I couldn’t agree with the author more. I only wish I had written the piece myself.

    Steve Walker
    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Northwest College

  13. Wyoming IS some place special, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the same number of crazies, in proportion to its population, as the rest of the country. Consider the guy with the bow and arrow, and knife, who rampaged in Casper a few months ago.

    The NRA slogan Lockwood mentioned in his closing statement is right, but in ALL senses; but Lockwood is wrong about guns not protecting people. Good people with guns DO protect other people.