The latest installment of the nation’s endless debate on gun control recently surfaced on the University of Utah campus. A graduate student instructing a class included a detailed weapons policy on their syllabus. In the syllabus, students were required to stand in a small “second amendment zone,” as the instructor wanted to discourage students from carrying a concealed weapon. The instructor called carrying a gun to school “absurd, antisocial and frightening behavior.”
The graduate student was quickly relieved of their teaching duties. Current Utah law allows individuals to carry a concealed weapon in both K-12 schools and on university campuses. In general, Utah has remarkably loose gun laws, even by American standards. Utah firearms dealers are not required to obtain a state license. There is no waiting period to purchase a firearm and no limit regarding how much can be purchased at a time. While there are some regulations on background checks, various loopholes remain — giving potentially dangerous individuals opportunities to purchase deadly weapons.
It should be no surprise that this recent controversy sparked polarizing and toxic debate. Many of the criticisms of this graduate student, even when technically accurate, intentionally miss the point. Conservative news outlets, the National Rifle Association and some Utah lawmakers were quick to condemn the student. However, these groups fail to address a far more important issue: pervasive gun violence continues to impact our state and country.
The concealed carry laws are justified by the oft-repeated refrain of gun lobbyists and conservative populations that more firearms will lead to a safer society. For years we have waited for this to come true. There are now more guns than there are people in the United States. Every day, 96 Americans are killed with guns. With alarming regularity, communities mourn mass shootings in schools, churches and workplaces. This destructive cycle will continue until we destroy the myth that an increased access to firearms will magically end gun violence.
The graduate student’s syllabus was meant to comment on this pressing issue, and I doubt they would have actually enforced it as classroom policy. Still, the student made significant mistakes. The policy was not legally justified while their statements lacked policy and nuance. The student’s comparison of a “second amendment zone” to free speech zones was outdated — as of 2017, all open spaces on the University of Utah campus are free speech zones.
However, this student’s willingness to question and confront Utah’s gun culture is sorely needed. Our response to gun violence has become a toxic routine — shock, mourning, occasional vows to change, and then, after the dust has barely settled, we return to an untenable status quo. The graduate student was willing to address Utah’s toxic gun culture directly, beyond the whiplash of the news cycle. Their methods were confrontational, but it is past time to be brutally honest about our cultural obsession with guns. An educational setting is a perfect opportunity to examine and challenge existing paradigms. Installing a “second amendment zone” was extreme and unnecessary, but so are Utah’s current concealed carry laws. Our legislators need to protect their constituents by enacting common-sense gun legislation. If they refuse to do their jobs, I suggest sending them to a 3×3 taped square on the Senate floor.