Guns on Campus: A Loaded Question

News outlets report today that Texas is preparing to give college students and professors the right to carry guns on campus (“Texas Set to Allow Guns on College Campuses”— This is one of those issues where one would expect strictly defined camps on the right and left to immediately pull out well-worn and implacable rhetoric supporting their side’s case.

One might also assume that as an organization focused on peacebuilding, Pasos would rather predictably jump into the fray. However, our goal is to inspire peacebuilding through education and artful expression. Our role is to foster the resulting discussion rather than to dictate policy. We look to empower people so they can make a personal response to issues that affect the peace.

Framing the gun issue in narrow terms; one side sees the constitutional right to bear arms as a source of peaceful protection, while the other side sees peace as possible only if society is devoid of the weapons that break that peace. So, who is right?

One can draw a comparison between recent moves toward gun proliferation and the campaign to curtail smoking cigarettes. Interestingly, these campaigns are moving in opposite directions while potentially destined to meet in the same place.

So, what do I mean here? Think about it. Whereas smoking was allowed virtually everywhere in the not too distant past, it now is legally restricted in most public spaces. The number of smokers has dropped, but “die-hard” devotees remain committed. Let’s say tomorrow all laws banning smokers from public spaces were repealed. Would smokers flood the bars, restaurants and other spaces where they were previously banned? If they tried, they would face a force more intractable than the law: the will of the public.

When society was trained to look the other way, smokers could practice their habit with abandon. Today, with or without laws, the majority has found its voice and weighed in: light up in a public space and you will immediately feel the chill that comes from unacceptable behavior. Light up near a child and the ethics of your behavior will be judged. It is not a matter of people once liking the smell of smoke, and then suddenly turning against it. The laws limiting smoking provided an atmosphere where like-minded people found their voice as they discovered strength in numbers.

So how does this relate to the gun debate? Rather than restricting the carrying of guns, laws now offer to put them in more hands in a variety of public spaces. However, it doesn’t have to follow that “having the right” to do something, means society will turn a blind eye to those who exercise this right. Lasting change requires people to embrace certain behaviors because they see the benefits these provide—to loved ones and to the experience of living in groups. There is an endless list of things that are legal that we choose not to do in public. People can “choose” not to carry guns. Without legally restricting them, we can also create an atmosphere that calls upon others to value the societal benefits of a population that eschews carrying weapons.

Changing behavior through a shift in ideology is a longer road than changing it through laws. However, peacebuilding is a step-by-step process. Our societies will only truly experience peace when its principals live within us.

*(February 21, 2011: “Texas Set to Allow Guns on College Campuses”

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