Shooting My Mouth Off: Thoughts About Gun Violence & Education

Old black and white photo of children playing with guns

Shocked by the horrific event in Charleston? That’s America, baby — Columbine, Aurora, Newtown — its everyday stuff — just the way life is in our country.

Each night children go to bed with “Bang, bang, you’re dead . . . thirty bullets in your head,” At school, they learn to give things their “best shot,” and to meet “bang-up” expectations. When their efforts finally “go over with a bang,” they attain recognition as a “top gun.”

Shooting Their Mouths Off

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I would like to engage in my passion for etymology and the insights it provides on the topic. “Top guns” were once synonymous with “great guns.” Our first “great guns” were simply large firearms like cannons, as opposed to smaller ones such as muskets or rifles, a distinction which held up to the end of the 19th century. They also came to name a person of note or consequence. The man we used to call a “great gun” was really something. Today we know him better as the real “big shot.”

Speaking of “big shots,” no one “goes great guns,” is more successful in pushing arms, than the manufacturers of guns and ammunition and their proxy, the NRA.

More Bang for the Buck

The expression, “going great guns” comes from British naval slang of the 18th century when “blowing great guns” signified a violent gale. For manufacturer of arms, however, it’s less a threatening storm than a windfall of profits. Gun makers churned out nearly six million guns last year — double the number that they did a decade ago. This year, the industry is expected to rack up in excess of $11.7 billion in sales and $993 million in profits.

They are literally getting “more bang for the buck.”

In 1953, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with a ‘New Look’ policy promising more combat effectiveness for less money, by substituting atomic firepower for manpower and conventional weaponry. They described it as the ‘bigger bang for your buck’ theory, a variation on Pepsi-Cola’s ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ (c.1950).

Today, “more bang for the buck” speaks directly to those seeking great returns for an investment in arms. It’s not just guns. It’s ammunition as well. As one gun lobbyist once put it, “You make a product for $300, and somebody could buy this revolver and, by the time they are 80, they’ll have fired $10,000 worth of ammunition through it.”

Better perhaps we should rephrase investment in armaments as “More bucks for the bang.”

Calling the Shots

Massacres are good business at creating “more bucks for the bang.” Critics may dramatically depict the results and fill the airwaves with talk about the need for new restrictions, but they only serve to convince gun owners that government is going to take away their right to buy guns, further spurring sales.

Feeding that frenzy is their mantra that everyone should be armed. When tragedies involving guns occur, they even go so far as to blame victims or their protectors for not having been properly armed. Their answer to gun violence, you see, is simply more guns.

That’s hardly a new idea. People have been keeping the peace with guns ever since 1330. The soldiers at Windsor Castle named their favorite and most prominent weapon — a huge catapult which hurtled large stones and balls of fire at the enemy — “Dame” or “Lady Gunhilda” from Icelandic gunnr, meaning “war” and hildr, a “battle”. Later, with the advent of the cannon, it was first shortened to gunne and later to gun, thus naming the world’s first firearms.

Though 75 percent of the American people favor some form of restriction on handguns, the big shots at the NRA work relentlessly towards its goal of a fully armed America. The sights of its 2.8 million members trained on Congress, it continues to “call the shots,” setting the substance and pace of the national debate. Congress is their target and they are dead on in compliance. It hasn’t passed a gun control measure since 1999.

The results are in. Today, you can find those sons of a gun everywhere. The horrors continue. And there’s no leadership in Congress willing to act decisively in any organized fashion to curtail their proliferation.

A Farewell to Arms

Sooner or later, we’ll just have to “bite the bullet” on the subject. A century ago, before anesthesia, it was common to give a wounded soldier a bullet to bite on in order to divert his attention from the pain of a battlefield amputation

No easy task to bite the bullet. In 1857, the Sepoys, many of whom were Muslim and Buddhist and constituted a large portion of Britain’s crack regiment in India, refused to fight, the mutiny ultimately breaking out into a full scale rebellion. The cause of their discontent was their belief that the bullets they first had to bite prior to firing were wrapped in a protective coating of lard and beef wax. Fact or fiction, the rumor managed to offend at once both the Buddhists to whom the cow was sacred and the Muslims to whom the pig was taboo.

Like good soldiers, we too will have to grit our teeth and do what has to be done. As Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Bite the bullet old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” (“The Light that Failed,” 1891).

Iver Johnson Ad for Revolvers
They are not toys: they shoot straight and kill.

              

I wrote in my new book, how I twice had the opportunity to fulfill the dream of every progressive educator: to create his or her own school. These were truly humbling occasions—I had not only to confront the contradictions and shortcomings of the system but my own personal ones as well. No longer could I take comfort in merely railing against the system. I had to be proactive and constructive.

I thought of my own children: What kind of school do you want them to attend? What kind of a world do you want them to grow up in? What do they need to know in order to build that world? How can the educational process help them acquire the skills and mind-sets to do so? The questions I asked then are the very same ones you need to address now. The world I see now is one of metal detectors and armed guards. Is that the world you want?

 Schools cannot be value-free in the process.

To paraphrase James Carville, an advisor of Bill Clinton, “It’s the values stupid!”—especially so, given what confronts us today.  In the wake of the tragedy at Parkland, we have seen hundreds of thousands of students organize, march, and protest against the rising tide of gun violence in our nation.  Most heartening is broad membership of this emerging coalition—well-to do, predominantly white suburban students from the privileged towns of Littleton, Newtown, and Parkland, joined with less advantaged urban young people of color from cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and New York, who are demanding action against the gun violence they are forced to live with each and every day of their life.

With it has come an emerging understanding that many of the issues which they face, transcend racial, geographic, and class divisions—requiring a new coming together on behalf of a future in which they can all believe.

They also challenge our schools to step to the forefront – to emphasize student autonomy and creativity, moral growth and engagement and put community at the very center of the educational process—not just through establishing checklists of social-emotional “skills,” or encouraging virtual communities on-line —but by actually  embodying community and living it daily.

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.