The issue - Discuss guns without triggering controversy

This debate can be extremely divisive, so how can you avoid the flashpoints while ensuring that pupils are safe and informed?

"Anybody who wants to disarm me can drop dead!"

As demonstrated by this comment from musician and gun advocate Ted Nugent, made on CNN show Piers Morgan Tonight in 2011, few political issues inspire such fierce debate among Americans as gun control. You can be sure that any online article even remotely touching on guns will be subject to a barrage of impassioned and even vitriolic comments.

For US teachers, this is a difficult topic. Tragedies at institutions such as Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School linger in the mind, and, of course, student safety is paramount. But the gun issue is complicated and controversial, and every young person should be free to form their own opinions. So how should teachers approach the subject? Well, this is how I tackle it at my school in the US - hopefully this will provide guidance for teachers elsewhere.

First, I set out the history. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was added to the US Constitution. To ensure defence against a tyrannical government or foreign invasion, the second amendment to the Constitution declares that the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed. Since then, the US population has grown to well over 300 million, with almost as many guns.

Then I set out the context. In my 40 years of life, I have never found myself at the wrong end of a gun. However, according to FBI crime statistics, 14,827 murders took place in the US in 2012, 69 per cent of which involved firearms. Many people insist that gun control tactics do little to curb this violence and may actually increase it, by leaving citizens unable to defend themselves against armed criminals. For example, Chicago's near-total ban on handguns did not prevent an annual murder rate of about 500.

Then comes the practical point of the lesson. Some say that rather than a ban, the answer to the problem is gun safety, which is widely taught in US schools. The National Rifle Association runs the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program for young children, which teaches the mantra "If you see a gun: stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult." Most schools adopt this.

However, in my experience, what tends to have the most impact - beyond bans or school initiatives - is what is taught at home. And this varies considerably.

Millions of Americans legally own a variety of guns that are never used in a crime. In these households, children are taught that guns are tools that, when used responsibly, can provide recreation and protection. They learn that if guns are banned, only the law-abiding citizens will be left unarmed and helpless. Considering that the most recent mass shootings occurred in gun-free zones, this concern would seem to be a fair one.

Other children learn that the freedom they enjoy in the US cannot be taken for granted and that they must be prepared to defend it if necessary. Many Americans are unwilling to place their safety and freedom in the hands of the government or police, and want to be armed should an intruder or invading army come to their town. "Police can't stop crimes - police show up after they're over," stated former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, and this view is shared by many.

In contrast, other families view guns as the primary threat to the safety of their community. In many inner-city neighbourhoods, gang violence makes homicide the leading cause of premature death. Here, the vast majority of guns are not legally owned. Children who walk to school or play outside are at risk of being hit by a stray bullet. Law-abiding residents view guns as a constant safety threat, and children learn to hide when they hear gunfire. But for the non-law-abiding residents, guns are a tool of protection, status or intimidation.

In many affluent neighbourhoods, guns are not a big issue. Violence is rare, so residents do not feel under threat and therefore don't give much thought to owning a firearm. Children here may see violence on television but rarely in person. Some parents would never allow a gun in their home, and their children are taught that guns are to be avoided by everyone except the police and the military. A common opinion is that the proliferation of guns is the primary reason why the US leads the developed world in murders, and that stricter gun control is the obvious course of action.

How, as a teacher, can you wade through the issues while ensuring that all these opinions are respected and, most importantly, all children are safe? Teachers should address different sides of the argument to avoid marginalising pupils with opposing views. It is acceptable to express your personal opinions and beliefs, but they should be stated as such. Two simple ways to use the subject as a learning tool are:

  • l Get students to read and interpret the second amendment to the US Constitution. What did the Founding Fathers mean when they wrote "the right to bear arms"? What limits were intended, if any?
  • l Hold a debate. Why do some people believe that guns should be illegal? Why do others think owning guns is a right that needs protecting? What are acceptable uses for guns? How can they be used safely?
    • Remember that it is not your job to make children's minds up about guns; instead, you are there to ensure that they are informed and safe, and these are two things that teachers can do to positive effect.

      One final point: it is important for schools and police departments to form a plan of action in the event of an armed intruder. Children must be told to report any threats of violence to a teacher; parents need to know the warning signs to look out for in their children and must know where to seek help if needed.

      Seth Robey is a science teacher in Illinois, US

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