Bringing a gun to work - it's a matter of attitude

2nd November 2007 at 00:00

In a much misquoted remark, Oscar Wilde once wrote, "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language." Were he writing today, he would surely have added one other key area of difference: our attitude to guns.

As a rule, it's fair to say that most teachers in Britain would prefer not to have firearms in the classroom. In some urban colleges they now take this seriously enough to have installed airport-style security checks, with a metal-detecting frame set up for anyone entering the building to walk through.

Despite the recent spate of campus shootings in the US, some there still see the issue rather differently. Indeed one middle-aged teacher in the west coast state of Oregon is fighting a case though the courts to enable her to take a handgun with her into class.

"I know it is my right to carry that gun," Shirley Katz is reported to have said. Apparently in Oregon there's a state law giving licensed gun- owners the right to bring a firearm to work. Presumably just taking in your lunchbox isn't enough.

Back in the 80s I spent a year teaching on exchange in a community college in rural Alabama. This proved to be something of an eye opener to a dyed- in-the-wool urbanite Englishman - not least on the issue of guns.

As part of the exchange, you not only swapped jobs but also got to live in each other's homes. When I first arrived in Pettus Street in the downtown of Selma, Alabama, I found three guns in various parts of the house, one of them conveniently loaded and ready for use. I mentioned this to one of my new colleagues. "Yeah," he said, "he must have put the others away somewhere."

This was a world where the logic of the life I had been used to was quickly turned upside down. In London the gun enthusiast is seen as something of a marginal character, someone you'd rather not live next door to. In Selma you were suspect if you weren't turned on by the prospect of firing a high-powered rifle at a moving target.

"You hunt much over there in London, England?" I was often asked. Somehow they couldn't seem to grasp that London wasn't really hunting terrain and that great herds of elks were no longer to be found transmigrating via the Old Kent Road.

In class I quickly became used to the youth who turned up for "freshman composition" in bloodstained camouflage gear. Sure enough, that was his pick-up parked out in the lot, with a full rifle rack proudly displayed in the rear window. In truth he was a gentle and good-tempered lad - at least if you weren't a deer - who turned in his work on time and unfailingly called you "Sir".

The only person I ever saw carrying a gun in the college itself was Watson. Soft of speech and slow of brain, Watson had the impressive title "head of security". As he was actually the only security officer on the campus, this was somewhat akin to being captain of a canoe. I was never quite sure if Watson was his real name, or just a nickname he'd been given for his habit of habitually greeting you with a "Hi, what's on?"

Watson's method of keeping you secure was to make sure that whenever any trouble did break out, he was always somewhere else. He was certainly nowhere to be seen when one of my students - recently dishonourably discharged from the US Army - pinned me to the whiteboard during a session he described as "psycho-drama".

No-one on campus seemed to believe Watson would know what to do with the pistol he kept in a little holster on his right hip if he ever had occasion to draw it. In fact, the running joke was that the only way he knew which end to hold was because of the word "butt" printed on the handle.

No one actually got shot during my year at the college, so maybe Watson had a few live rounds in his metaphorical chambers after all. When I went back on a visit a few years later though, I found that the peace had been broken.

In a classic tale of deep-South betrayal and revenge, a young man had come to the campus looking for the woman who had "done him wrong". He found her in the parking lot and fired off several rounds in her direction. No doubt blinded by the emotions he was feeling, he missed her completely. Sadly, that wasn't the case for two of the bystanders: both were hit in the head, and died on the way to hospital.

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