Letter To My Congresswoman

I’m an American high school teacher, so as you can imagine, this last week has been a time of turmoil. And for the first time — a fact which I find shameful– this latest school shooting has actually driven me to do something. I wrote my representative in Congress, Martha McSally, who is currently running for the Arizona Senate seat that will be vacated by the retiring Jeff Flake, about gun control.

I should have done this many times in the past, and I can’t justify my own inaction. I’ve argued about this topic for years, but to say that I’ve never voiced my opinion to the people who can actually do something — well. I’ve done it now. Sent the email ten minutes ago. I will also be sending a version of this to every candidate who runs for McSally’s seat — one which will probably be hotly contested, considering the political climate in this country and the fact that this is a Democratic area with a Republican representative — and I welcome anyone who wants to use this as a framework for their own letter. Steal it, steal a paragraph, steal everything you want. Do more than I have done. Let’s see what we can make happen.

February 23, 2018

To Representative McSally:

I am an independent voter living in Tucson, in the 2nd Congressional District for Arizona. I am an educator: I have taught high school English for eighteen years, for the last four at Sonoran Science Academy, one of the premier STEM charter schools in the state – the only high school in Tucson which Governor Ducey visited this past year. I am writing to you despite knowing that you are currently very busy, seeking a new job in addition to performing the duties of your current position, because you should know that I will also be seeking a new position, and quite possibly a new profession, unless you and your fellow Congresspeople can do the right thing. Unless you bring some sense to the debate over gun control, and specifically firearms in schools, then Tucson, and Arizona, and this country will lose thousands of outstanding teachers and educators. Like me.

The sense I seek – the sense I demand – in this debate has three elements, one positive change, one negative stance, and a general direction. The positive change is simple: Congress must repeal the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from performing any research into gun violence in this country if said research “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” I find this law appalling, entirely apart from my stance on gun control, because it is nothing more than enforced ignorance: it is a law passed by our government intended solely to limit and suppress knowledge. It flies in the face of science because it presumes an outcome and refuses the research for fear of that outcome – but it is entirely possible that the outcome of that research would be evidence against gun control! There is absolutely no reason to prevent the CDC from investigating the causes of gun deaths, and 30,000 reasons to allow that research to go forward, every year. I say that as an educator, not as an advocate for gun control; the truth is always better than ignorance, and I for one would gladly change my stance on gun control if the evidence supported such a change. Congress must allow the CDC to dispel our ignorance, to teach us why this problem is unique to the United States. That knowledge, suppressed for twenty years, is why this debate is still so acrimonious: because we do not know the facts behind it. We do not know if the right to bear arms is a cause of those 30,000 annual deaths, or if it prevents even more deaths while contributing to none. We are left searching for reasons, for answers, while the body that could provide us with several of those answers sits with its hands tied. Please: make this the first action you take regarding this debate. Jay Dickey himself regrets his namesake law and argued for its repeal in 2012, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Strip away the veil of ignorance, and let us know the truth. Repeal the Dickey Amendment.

The negative stance I would ask you to support has to do with a common reaction to the atrocity of school shootings. I have been a teacher since 2000, and I was in school to become a teacher when the massacre happened at Columbine; I have watched, again and again, as maniacs with firearms have devastated communities by targeting our children. Every time this happens, whether the debate remains local or expands to include the entire nation, at some point, someone will suggest arming the teachers. This time the suggestion came most clearly from our president, Mr. Trump. He Tweeted that “Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!” Allow me to state, unequivocally, that this is false. Highly trained teachers is what this nation already has, but we are, as we should be, highly trained in education, not in combat. I would never presume to lecture you, who have been in combat, on what that experience means and what training and preparation went into making it possible for you to fight for our country, but I am entirely and absolutely sure that I do not have what you had. I do not have the training, I do not have the preparation, I do not have the will to fight. My classroom is not a battleground, and I am not a warrior. What’s more, I will not become such. Turning me from an educator into a fighter would destroy too much of what I need to be successful in my profession: it would change my relationship to my students, it would change my view of myself and my role, it would change the priorities for my continuing professional development and the allocation of resources. It would make my position untenable for me, and if it ever becomes policy, I will quit. I will quit immediately and without reservation, and I will not be alone: please recognize that thousands and thousands of teachers feel as I do. The country already has a teacher shortage, and a longstanding problem with hiring and retaining quality educators; do not make it worse by misunderstanding who we are and what we do. I will never carry a weapon in school, and I will never fire on a student. Don’t ask me to.

Lastly, I would ask you to join me in moving the gun control debate in a general direction that I hope you will be able to support. I recognize the right to self-defense and the concomitant right to keep and bear arms. I oppose authoritarian government, and applaud the democratization of physical force through the private ownership of firearms. But the reality is that the ready availability of firearms, particularly of weapons that have uniquely destructive properties, allow for the unequal and devastating use of force in a way that reduces individual rights: one 19-year-old man’s ability to purchase an AR-15 and “countless” magazines has taken the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to pursue happiness, away from thousands of students. While of course such simple measures as a waiting period for semi-automatic rifles, or an age limit of 21 on the purchase of long guns, or a limit on magazine capacity, or a universal background check system, would not stop all massacres and would not affect the majority of gun deaths, the simple fact that such measures would stop some massacres, and would reduce gun deaths, without materially affecting the right to bear arms or the ability of Americans to defend themselves, makes these measures requisite. It makes them necessary. It makes their continued absence a failure and a dereliction of duty. I myself was inspired to write you, an action I have not taken in the past, by the political will and activity of the victims of the Parkland shooting; I consider myself to be derelict in my duty in not having taken up this cause in the past with the same vigor and determination that these teenagers are showing us now. I am a teacher; I am an adult; I should have been fighting this fight, not waiting for children to fight it for me. Had I fought for these measures in the past, had everyone who agrees with me done so, had all the congresspeople and elected leaders in this nation done what we all (I hope) know to be the right thing, then this particular massacre would not have occurred. That weighs on me, and though I don’t hope it weighs on you, I hope you can empathize with me about it. I hope you can understand the determination that I now have, that this situation not continue as it has in the past, that we not let this moment sink back into oblivion and change nothing and do nothing. I will not take up arms and fire on a student: but neither will I be silent while madmen do exactly that.

I hope you can agree with me on these three actions: to repeal the Dickey Amendment and allow the CDC to investigate the causes of gun violence; to oppose the absurd idea that our schools should encourage or require teachers to carry arms as a means of defending students from attack; and to press for some common-sense gun safety measures that would help to regulate arms without removing any citizen’s inalienable right to self-defense. Please believe that my vote, and my support, depend on that agreement.

Sincerely,

Theoden Humphrey

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