On Wednesday, as the nation grieved one of the worst school shootings in American history, journalists republished old articles that had been written about previous mass shootings in American history. Elected officials, too, recycled the same threadbare thoughts and prayers that were left over from the last tragedy, although they have at least stopped saying “thoughts and prayers.” I did, though, encounter one new idea—a proposal made by educational psychologist David C. Berliner that was posted on Diane Ravitch’s education blog:
It is way past time. Between now and May 1st teachers have to agree on the gun legislation they want. They can consult with [Gabby] Giffords and [Mark] Kelly, and others who have suffered, such as the parents who have already lost children to this horrible characteristic of our culture. If by May 1st they have not received assurance that their legislation for sanity in gun ownership will be acted on soon, they need to walk out of our schools. It would be May Day, when workers should exert their strength.
Our country’s legislators, and the voters who send them to make our laws, can then choose: Teachers and (most) parents for sane gun laws, or, the NRA that provides our legislators money to avoid making the laws that could reduce the carnage we see too frequently.
Almost all of America’s 3 million teachers—nurturers and guardians of our youth—want sensible gun laws. They deserve that. But they have to be ready to exert the power they have by walking out of their schools if they do not get what they want. They have to exert the reputational power that 3 million of our most admired voters have. Neither the NRA nor their legislative puppets will be able stand up to that. My advice is to start meeting now, write model legislation, submit it to state and federal legislators, and if rebuffed, close down our schools until you get what you (and the rest of us) deserve.
Save our children.
Berliner’s solution was at once the most proactive and elegant thing I’d seen in a day characterized by hopelessness and paralysis. I’ve been struck by the fact that teachers have the smartest things to say about school violence, masculinity, saving lives, and guns. That’s because unlike craven politicians and the NRA, teachers don’t get to hide from the victims of gun violence, or predetermine when the moment for hopes and prayers has lapsed into the moment for business as usual (an ever narrowing time span). We should listen to the teachers, who aren’t allowed to grow bored and move on.
I reached out to Berliner—a regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and a past president of the American Educational Research Association and the division of educational psychology of the American Psychological Association—to ask where his idea came from and how he feels about the notion of “politicizing tragedy.” Our conversation, edited for clarity, follows.
Dahlia Lithwick: I found myself completely immobilized after the shooting and unable to write. I feel like I write the same thing every time this happens. What possessed you to post this?
David Berliner: Enough. I’d had enough. After it posted we got so many responses, including from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. I had originally proposed May 1 but we decided April 20 would be the day for teachers to close schools down, or take an hour to walk around campus, or take a day off to go to their legislatures with model legislation. Look, ALEC and the NRA buy legislators with model legislation and a check. And so April 20 will become the day on which teachers can say, “No. You will never ever be elected again if you don’t pass sensible laws, and there are all sorts of things that can be done that don’t violate the Constitution.” I’ve just had enough.
What do you say to proposals that teachers simply be armed themselves in order to protect their classrooms?
I don’t even know how to answer that. I think that’s what’s known as “hardening the target.” You build a house made of bricks, the bombs just get bigger. Arming teachers doesn’t solve the problem. We want children to feel safe in their classrooms. They shouldn’t feel like they are under siege. They want and need a stable world, not one they have nightmares about. When Arizona was considering passing a law that would allow concealed carry on campus, I wrote to every single legislator and told them I would never ever give any student an F grade again if the law passed. If they were worried about grade inflation, they should know I wouldn’t ever deal with a kid who had an F grade unless I also had a gun. Which is really the stupidest thing possible—students and professors, all packing guns. The Old West died for a good reason.
And what’s your response to the people who say that it’s unseemly to politicize a tragedy by talking about gun policy?
But it is about guns. And I am making it about guns. I just can’t fathom why people need to hunt using automatic weapons. I can acknowledge that there can be problems and disputes about interpreting what the Second Amendment means with respect to militias, but there are the kinds of normal precautions we can discuss about public safety. After 9/11 we enacted public safety measures in airports, for instance. It seems to me we have the same issue here. I’m not against shooting or hunting. But I don’t believe we should let 14-year-olds drive or 15-year-olds buy a drink at a bar. And if the NRA is basically just paying people to vote a certain way, there has to be a cost. They have to know they will lose their jobs.