An open letter to Memorial University’s Senate

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Originally from a rural area where firearms are quite commonplace, I learned to handle guns of all types before I had even left high school. I then served in the North Nova Scotia Highland Regiment, where I was trained on a range of weapons, including fully automatic assault rifles and machine guns. My extensive experience with firearms has taught me that regardless of how careful we may be in handling these dangerous weapons, accidents happen. Accidents happen most often when they’re invited to happen, and allowing students to carry firearms into the classroom when it is not completely necessary is what I consider an open invitation. The presence of firearms increases both the threat of serious injury and the likelihood of tragedy on our campus.

If we conceptualize the university classroom as a space where students submissively sit in desks and listen passively as experts lecture, it’s very easy to conclude that a firearm on a student’s hip shouldn’t be “a big deal”. However, the university classroom does not limit itself to being a space where students are “talked at”. The best university classrooms seek to involve their students in their learning as fully as possible. The presence of a firearm severely limits the scope of what can happen in the classroom, and therefore affects our ability to teach in our various disciplines. It’s incumbent on our University Senate to help safeguard the best conditions for student learning at the university. Why should students’ learning experiences be limited for little to no benefit? Very few people would argue that the presence of firearms in a classroom promotes an environment conducive to learning.

The learning of the student carrying a firearm in the classroom is also severely affected by the presence of this weapon. As a former uniformed member of the Canadian Forces, I can attest to the fact that individuals in uniform are treated very differently by their civilian peers. Wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon also has an important impact on how we interact with others. The immense responsibility that this represents for the students in question should not be underestimated.

The primary purpose of a firearm in a peace officer’s hands is to act as a “force multiplier”: its main function is, therefore, to foster an imbalance of power. Not only is the presence of a firearm in the hands of a student an affront to the sense of equality that should be fostered in the classroom; it also runs counter to the sense of community on campus. Further, Memorial University’s campuses are quickly becoming internationalized, and our university works hard to attract students from everywhere in the world. This includes a number of students coming from geographies where firearms are used to intimidate, control, and suppress voices of dissent. A number of voices responding to Dr. Stephen Crocker’s petition highlight the fact that students and faculty deserve to work in an equal learning environment that is conducive to fostering healthy and open debate. Do all students feel completely free to speak their minds in the presence of an armed and uniformed officer of the law?

The only time that I have ever seen firearms in a Canadian Forces classroom was in the context of courses on weapons maintenance. These weapons were never loaded. In all other in-class learning contexts, our weapons were safely put away in lockers made for this purpose. If Canada’s military recognizes the fact that the presence of firearms does not create an environment that is conducive to learning, shouldn’t Memorial University?

Administrators should also recognize the increased obligations and responsibilities that come with this decision – including the increased potential for legal liability (not to mention potential loss of life) should an incident occur. Since there is no empirical evidence demonstrating that the presence of sworn armed security officers at universities helps to deter fanatics or terrorists, and since our campus is located in very close proximity to the largest RNC detachment in the province, there can be no argument that there is a potential benefit to be gained from inviting weapons onto the campus. Unless a serious situation arose in the very classroom occupied by the armed student police officer, it is very unlikely that this student would arrive on the scene before the RNC’s patrol vehicles, many of which are routinely patrolling in the immediate vicinity (e.g. the Health Sciences Centre, Confederation Building, etc.).

Unlike many of those who have signed the petition set up by Dr. Crocker to contest Senate’s recent decision to allow on-duty student police officers to carry their side-arms on campus, I happen to be quite comfortable in the presence of firearms. Like the RNC student officers in question, I have been trained to handle firearms as safely as possible and have learned to respect them. This being said, however, I am very uncomfortable with what their presence represents on our university campus. The first time I ever travelled outside of Canada, I remember being surprised to see Parisian police officers carrying submachine guns. This made a big enough impression on me that I still remember it, over two decades later. Seeing peace officers equipped with these submachine guns drastically changed my perception of France. The presence of armed students on our campus has much the same impact on our perceptions of the university campus.

A society that gets comfortable with weapons gets comfortable with using weapons. A firearm is a tool whose actual purpose should never be forgotten: it serves to kill, injure, and maim. Even in the hands of a peace officer, this is the firearm’s function. As one respondent to the petition has articulated, “No one should need to carry any kind of weapon in a civil society – and creating a civil society is surely one of the ideals of a university.”

Sébastien Després Lecturer
Department of Anthropology
Memorial University

Dr. Stephen Crocker has created a petition to bring attention to this issue. Please consider signing!

Justin Brake interviewed Stephen Crocker last weekend for The Indy News Hour on Keep Station Radio. Listen to the full interview (beginning around the 43:00 mark):

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on TheIndependent.ca or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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