Almost invariably, we find our leaders condoling with us in terms emphasizing the identities of the victims slain, whether as individuals or as collectivities. In recent months, we have seen this pattern magnified in the solemn condemnations of violence against Asian Americans that followed Robert Aaron Long’s senseless massacre of six women of Asian descent who worked in Atlanta-area spas. (Long killed eight people in total.)
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Almost invariably, we find our leaders condoling with us in terms emphasizing the identities of the victims slain, whether as individuals or as collectivities. In recent months, we have seen this pattern magnified in the solemn condemnations of violence against Asian Americans that followed Robert Aaron Long’s senseless massacre of six women of Asian descent who worked in Atlanta-area spas. (Long killed eight people in total.) At my own campus, it was the sensational, headline-making slaughter of three women at the birthday party of a 9-year-old — a mother and two of her daughters, the eldest of whom was an undergraduate at my institution, Baruch College, in New York City — that occasioned a campus eulogy, this one focusing on my student’s status as a student.
There are important differences between what happened in Atlanta and what happened to my student and her family in Brownsville, N.Y. One case targeted women who worked in massage parlors — victims who inspired the heroic if ambiguously worded hashtag #EndAsianHate — and the other was a horrific domestic suicide-murder, which claimed the lives of my student, her mother, and her sister, and left a 9-year-old orphaned. The former was racially motivated and perpetrated by a stranger; the latter a fatal family affair. But, in both cases, an armed, unstable man burst into a space of unarmed, unsuspecting people and gunned them down. Neither murderer should have had access to a firearm.
This essential common denominator remains conspicuously unaddressed when our leaders write to us. The onus for promoting responsible gun control is tacitly treated as if beyond the ambit of higher ed. Most college presidents seem to feel that they have done their part simply by barring guns from campus (although, of course, some conservative states — Texas, Georgia, and, most recently, Montana — compel campuses to permit the possession of firearms). These restrictions, enforced by scarcely more than no-gun signs interspersed throughout campus, do no more to deter firearm possession than no-smoking signs deter smoking.
It’s no secret why administrators often dodge this problem: money and politics. The Second Amendment — or, rather, a certain interpretation of it — maintains a stranglehold on the imaginations of so many Americans, and the National Rifle Association remains one of the most influential lobbying organizations in the nation. Colleges do not want to upset lawmakers or donors who oppose firearm restrictions for fear of losing vital funding. For the last 20 years, the Dickey Amendment, tacked on to a 1996 omnibus spending bill in Congress, has discouraged even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the entity most directly interested in this threat to public health — from pursuing research on gun violence. If the CDC risked losing funding for taking up this issue, colleges have every reason to believe that their doing so might have a similar effect.
The focus on the details of gun-related attacks (usually the identities of victims) over the form these attacks take (unilateral gun violence) should be understood as a rhetorical expedient that allows consoling administrators to sidestep this political morass and avoid alienating funding sources. The wish to depoliticize this issue is understandable from a fundraising perspective, but it is indefensible from an ethical one.
Colleges fully understand that they are central to strengthening social welfare and diminishing social harm. This is why, for example, so many institutional actors have expressed support for and plans to reinvest in various ethnic-studies programs in the wake of the surge of violence against Black people over the past year and, more recently, against Asian Americans, fueled largely by pernicious propaganda related to Covid-19. The idea behind supporting such initiatives is that these programs will change prejudiced minds and hearts through education. Because committing to boosting ethnic studies is the most concrete step colleges have taken to address gun violence — circuitous though that may seem — it merits special consideration here.
I am not suggesting that higher-ed leaders are wrong for striving after the humanistic holy grail of improving the demos through education. It’s simply that the current strategy is not enough. It confronts the epidemic of violence from only one side, leaving the other wholly untouched. After all, how do you talk about gun violence without talking about guns and the people who abuse them? Expressing sadness over the loss of a member of a campus’s community to gun violence, or examining the racism motivating a gunman to murder members of a racial or ethnic group, are important gestures, surely. But, by overemphasizing the victims of the violence, these gestures risk sending the wrong message: They suggest that the victims might have been spared if only their murderers knew them better. This move stresses the identities of the killed above the pathology of the killers in the diagnosis of these tragedies.
The plague of gun violence is a many-headed hydra.
Colleges risk just such misplaced emphasis when they treat the reinvestment in the study of nonwhite cultures as a response to racially motivated gun violence. A similar dynamic has played out in the public sphere: Following these shootings, several Asian American academics published learned but accessible essays on various aspects of the history of Asian American women. Min Hyoung Song has described this exercise in public education as responding to a particular problem, one at the root of racially motivated violence: Asian Americans’ “lack of ability to frame stories about [themselves] and to remediate the persistent lack of knowledge about this country’s history.”
Such a tactic positions nonwhite people as cultural aberrations that must be explained to the dominant demographic in order to curb that group’s unexamined trigger happiness. In such a paradigm, we find ourselves dangerously close to normalizing the profoundly abnormal and perpetuating the very practices of exoticizing that lead to hate crimes in the first place.
But leaders must go further still if they are serious about stopping gun violence. They must commit no less in deed than in word to eliminating the conditions that place our society and, indeed, our campus communities at mortal risk. Doing so would require them to invest resources — and not just the affective kind — into understanding and halting the problem.
That might take the shape of recruiting faculty members and forming centers devoted to studying gun violence and gun laws, with the express intention of ending what is at this point unmistakably one of the nation’s most-pressing threats. Such centers, in their best forms, would rescue “interdisciplinarity” from the slough of cliché into which it has sunk, uniting scholars and practitioners of all stripes around a common emergency. The plague of gun violence is a many-headed hydra. Combating it requires all hands on deck: psychologists and humanists to tell us why guns maintain such a grip on the American imagination; legal and policy experts to generate strategies for disarming objections to gun control; artists to create works that invite viewers to glimpse the beauty of a world free of the mass, random carnage that firearms permit.
This is only a beginning, of course, but actions that have as their express intent the prevention of gun violence — targeted faculty recruitment and the formation of centers for the prevention of gun violence — would do far more to address the problem than heartfelt expressions of sympathy sent via mass email.
Colleges have always been at the helm of combating such threats, but, as our leaders’ avoidance of the issue of gun control suggests, we are remiss here. In fact, the government appears to be outstripping us. The New York State attorney general’s noble crusade against the NRA, for example, continues to build momentum, and the Biden administration has laid out a bold agenda for dispatching what the president has described as “the international embarrassment” of our nation’s gun problem. The threat posed by the Dickey Amendment having been neutralized in 2018, Congress provided funding for the CDC and the National Institutes of Health to conduct research into gun violence in the $1.4-trillion spending package it passed in 2019.
If higher education has failed to lead the charge on this, it must at least follow suit. It’s time to stop treating this issue as if it were simply part of the customary partisan swordplay. This nation’s failure to get a handle on gun violence is as much an academic concern as any — even more so, given its urgency and the demonstrable impact it is having on our students. The expansion of cultural understanding is a start, but it isn’t enough if it doesn’t lead to a corresponding contraction of the number of would-be murderers armed with guns.