A More Literal Trigger Warning, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader thinks Jim Elliott “has a point” about the gun raffle at the University of Oregon:

I think the notion of turning a bunch of college students loose on campus with guns is a dubious idea. However, as there were no plans to have firearms at the proposed event, and since the group apparently is an approved student organization under the university charter, they are entitled to student activity money as much as the local chapter of NORML, or BLM, or the Young Republicans or whatever.

As sunlight is the best disinfectant, exposure to “unsafe” ideas is the best inoculation. Students who spend their college careers in a “safe space” will find themselves poorly served.

Several readers, on the other hand, disagree:

Mr. Elliott completely mischaracterizes the move as an illiberal attempt to quash opposing views and protect fragile student sensibilities. While that framing fits nicely with the increasingly accepted narrative of coddled coeds and intolerant Liberals, the student senate meeting minutes show opposition was based almost exclusively on the fear that giving away free guns to college students would pose a safety risk. (One student senator brought up liability issues and two others did not want to support a gambling event.) Several of the student representatives specifically said they would have supported funding the event if not for gun giveaway.

To me, this seems an uncontroversial move to protect students' physical safety.

Countless studies have shown that one’s chances of being the victim of gun crime or injury/death (including accidental and self-inflicted) increase with the number of guns in a community and the ease access.

I am roughly a decade out of college, but if I were still a student I would have very much welcomed an open debate on gun policy. But given what we know about the link between guns and death/injury, I absolutely would feel less physically safe in an environment with more guns.

There’s also something chilling and seemingly contrary to notions of “free and open debate” when one of the sides wants to show up armed. It takes and incredible amount of sophistry or delusion, perhaps both, for Mr. Elliott to twist this into an act of “intimidation” that creates an “unsafe learning environment” for gun proponents by making them “less secure, less an equal part of their community” and stripping them of their right to appeal the university's gun ban policy. Even more maddening is how Mr. Elliott mocks legitimate safety concerns over guns on campus as some sort of personal psychological defect—ignoring the grim reality that gun injuries are projected to surpass automobile accidents as the leading cause of young people dying this year.

No one in the UofO case was opposing the debate over the school’s gun policy or the group’s right to advocate its views. The group was still scheduled to give away the guns at the poker tournament as planned. They just had to find someone else to pay for the pizza.

Another reader points to recent events:

Elliott asks that the students remember the context of where they live—Oregon. He’d probably do well to consider context, too—in particular, the context of gun violence on college campuses. According to The Washington Post, as of Oct. 1st, there were 294 mass shootings in the country in the 274 days of 2015 up to that point. This number was calculated after the recent shooting in Oregon at a community college campus. These students aren’t concerned for figurative safe spaces; they have legitimate reason to question their actual safety.

Perhaps the YAL students could request that $950 towards a guest speaker, a subscription to a libertarian journal the library doesn’t yet have access to, or pizza for an event were literal guns aren’t the prizes, but a trip to a shooting range is.

Another reader looks to the broader trend of gun violence in schools:

For ten years I have worked at college or university. In that time, we’ve had incidents like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Umpqua Community College. Ten years ago, staff meetings consisted of advice on how to calm emotionally distraught students; this year, we had two sessions alone on how to react to an active shooter on campus. (The key to survival is to flee. If you are unable to flee then you must hide in a locked area. If you cannot secure yourself in a locked area then play dead, possum-like; shooters typically lose track of who they’ve shot and generally will ignore prone bodies.) I came of age during Columbine. Before Columbine we had no procedures for intruders on campus at my high school, no training sessions on how to hide. Then after Columbine …

For almost twenty years now, we’ve lived in an age where several times a year a disturbed man will get a gun and shoot up public places. It’s possible that I may go into work on a day that a domestic terrorist targets my school and it could be my last day. I do not dwell on this possibility any more than I linger on thoughts of whether I could die in a car crash. And I am aware I am more likely to die in a car than in a mass shooting. Nevertheless, campuses don’t really feel like safe places to me.

It’s not because of speech. It’s not because of racial tension or sexual violence, both of which deserve our attention. It is because of how vulnerable I am to the whims of a domestic terrorist. And no one seems to really have a solution to the problem because all conversations about shootings devolve into a fruitless argument about gun control. (By the way, I don’t know why more responsible gun-owners don’t advocate for measures to deter the use of firearms, but I digress.)

One more reader:

Count me as somebody who is not convinced these types of speech policing incidents are a sign this generation is regressing on the issue of free speech. I think it’s just as likely they are simply contending with more of these decisions on their own. They’ll probably navigate through these complexities just fine, and we’ll look back and realize all of our fretting was unnecessary.

Update from Jim Elliott:

Your first correspondent engages in a rather profound act of mind-reading and ignores the fact that I took no position myself on UO’s gun ban itself. I’m actually completely fine with local municipalities, businesses, etc. choosing to ban the carry of firearms (though some will point out that the problem with UO is that it is in-part government-funded, which I will concede is a legal problem above my pay grade). This is absolutely in keeping with the history of the right to keep and bear arms in this country; localities who know their situations best make the rules most conducive for community.

I am not mocking safety concerns—I’m pointing out how utterly solipsistic the concern is unless the students confine themselves solely to campus for the entirety of their tenure there. The students of the University of Oregon navigate and experience the very situation they say they are in fear of every day.

Your first correspondent engages in exactly the kind of sophistry I’m talking about: No one was coming armed to campus for the event. And yet, the mere discussion of something already permitted by the law in Oregon is tantamount to arriving at a gun rights protest armed (not something I personally am in favor of—I don’t think you get very far knowingly upsetting the people you need to convince). It also takes a pretty profound lack of empathy not to see how the suppression of a meaningful event of political speech to a campus subgroup would serve to alienate that group from the community. Solipsism isn’t a psychological defect, but it is an impediment to rationality.

I recall a protest while attending UC Davis back in 2000 or 2001: A Palestinian student organization cut out person-shaped wood forms and splattered them with red paint to represent the Palestinians killed to-date during the ongoing Second Infitada. The leader of that organization penned an op-ed in the student newspaper arguing that Palestinians detonating suicide vests on buses filled with school children was justified by Israel's mandatory service law. That’s pretty upsetting. My Jewish friends were uniformly filled with loathing, with rage, and, yes, with fear. The idea that murdering children because they may one day be a soldier is monstrous, and you cannot help but wonder at the actions such a person might be willing to take.

And yet, Jewish student organizations did not call for the closing of the paper or an apology, did not demand that the university silence the Palestinians students for portraying violence and creating an unsafe climate on-campus towards Jews. No, they protested in turn. They countered speech with speech, not with the levers of student bureaucracy.

Student government is funded by a proportion of student fees. Just as we have, over time, concluded that the use of tax dollars to exclude ideological minorities is wrong, so too does this principal apply to the student budget. If you fund pizza for the UO chapter of NARAL, for the chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ, for the Black Student Union, for the Robots are Really Cool and We Want to Play With Them Club, then you fund pizza for everyone, or you fund pizza for none. And if you will not do so, if you intend to exclude others based on the content of their beliefs, then you are nothing but a tyrannical majority and you have ceded your moral claim to representation of the student body.

Everyone is vulnerable to the whims of a domestic terrorist. The modern system is incredibly fragile. Risk mitigation is a personal responsibility. Being security-aware isn’t an act of paranoia; it’s an act of duty towards oneself and one’s family. There’s a reason lone wolves are the nightmare of law enforcement: They’re nearly impossible to stop.

I am not cavalier about the risk of violence. In my work, I have been assaulted and stabbed, and I have been threatened with a gun by a parent. Any place with large numbers of people is potentially unsafe, whether it is a school or a mall or a sporting event. No amount of campus policy or security can make it less so. There’s always risk. You can be paralyzed by it, or you can move forward and accept it. The least reasonable option is to stop discussing it.