An Open Letter to Lindsey Graham: Why My College Composition Classroom is Better Than the Senate

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

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Dear Senator Graham,

I’ve been meaning to write you again, since receiving your response to my letter. I asked you to support the common sense gun laws advocated by Moms Demand Action, which are detailed on their Web page as follows:

1) Ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
2) Require background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases.
3) Report the sale of large quantities of ammunition to the ATF, and ban online sales of ammunition.

In response, you wrote, “As we continue to grieve the untimely loss of so many innocent lives, we must not react in a manner than is contrary to what makes this nation so strong. We must not let evil acts of violence defeat the foundations of the United States. Instead, we must find strength in our faith and community, and protect the rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Your response annoyed me, as you can tell from the cherry juice stains in the above photo. Whenever I’m annoyed, I get the bag of chocolate chips and the jar of cherries out of the refrigerator and indulge.

In three sentences, you manage to be both patronizing and wrong.

I am not, as you say, “react[ing] in a manner that is contrary to what makes this nation so strong” — partly because a nation with 32,000 gun deaths a year is not strong. It’s a flimsy, easily damaged mess and needs to be made stronger. That’s what we’re trying to do.

I agree that we “must not let evil acts of violence defeat the foundations of the United States,” but voting for common sense gun laws does not equal defeating the foundations of the United States, as you seem to imply — especially since a foundation of the United States is that we have the right to life. When the liberty (of, say, Nancy Lanza to own military-style assault weapons) infringes on the lives of 6- and 7- year old children (as. it. did.), there is a problem. And we let it happen. As Ravital Segal writes, “Our insufficient mental health services and weak gun control laws embody our society’s passivity — and resulting culpability.”

In your response, you give three “solutions” to the problem that is mass shootings: we should (1) find strength in our faith; (2) find strength in our community; and (3) protect the [2nd Amendment] rights of law-abiding Americans. Our faith is nonviolent and peace-loving, which is antithetical with such weapons of war; our community is damaged and continues to be damaged every day by gun violence (2728 gun deaths since Newtown); and, again: the rights of law-abiding Americans to their lives is more important than what is ultimately, for many, a hobby. As Dianne Feinstein points out: an assault weapons ban would exempt 2,271 types of guns that law-abiding Americans may use for hunting, protection, recreation, etc. But it would not allow the manufacture and distribution of weapons solely designed to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Your solutions are unsatisfactory.

I want you to know, Senator Graham, that the students in my college composition classroom have done a better job understanding, discussing and reaching reasonable compromise on this issue than has the United States Senate. And that’s just sad.

Some things to note:

1. We started the discussion around the same time as the Senate — in January.

2. Like the Senate, the students who comprise my class are a mixture of both liberals and conservatives. On one extreme, a student argued that nonlethal pepper spray is a more valuable weapon for self-defense than a lethal firearm, since you only have to aim in the direction of the attacker to incapacitate him; on the other extreme, a student (a soldier and gun enthusiast) shared his experiences with and love for the AR-15. Unlike those in the Senate, we all seem to genuinely like each other.

For the gun control unit, we read “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”, a transcription of the interview between Richard Heffner and Elie Wiesel, which argues for social responsibility. We agreed that this is an issue worth discussing, a problem worth solving. We read and/or discussed positions articulated by Paul Barrett (author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun) and Wayne LaPierre and President Obama, among others. Each student brought in both articles and political cartoons of their choice, investigated the claims presented, and offered their research and subsequent assessment of the arguments.

By the end of the unit, we had discussed a wide range of possible Wayne LaPierre-type solutions, including:

1. Increasing armed guards/police presence in schools (unsatisfactory, the group researching this option concluded, citing examples of both Columbine and Fort Hood; there was an armed guard at Columbine, and lots of armed soldiers at and around Fort Hood).

2. Allowing concealed weapons on campus (unsatisfactory, the group researching this option concluded, citing the Tuscon shooting, where a bystander with a concealed weapon decided, wisely, not to fire in the chaos for fear of hurting an innocent bystander; the bystanders who eventually subdued Jared Lee Loughner were unarmed).

And we discussed the solutions articulated by Moms Demand Action:

While my students agreed unanimously on universal background checks and record-keeping, the assault-weapons ban continued to be a sticking point. Then, my most conservative student offered a compromise: smart gun technology.

In “Newtown Parents Push Silicon Valley Leaders for Tech to Curb Gun Violence,” Josh Richman explains: “The new partnership between the tech community and Sandy Hook Promise — a nonprofit supporting families affected by the massacre and working to make the nation safer from such acts — involves a pledge from about 30 venture capitalists and angel investors to support companies developing technology that can help curb gun violence . . .

Some money might go to firms developing the smart-gun technology — firearms that won’t work without their rightful owner’s biometrics, such as a finger- or palm-print, or perhaps a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in the owner’s ring or wristband — said Jim Pitkow, chairman of the newly formed Technology Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, which will identify and vet ideas worthy of support.”

Brilliant. 

So, Senator Graham: you don’t support an assault weapons ban. I ask, then, that you advocate for smart gun technology on all firearms. I ask that you advocate for buyback programs, through which firearms without smart gun technology can be recycled. And, finally, I ask that you draft a new form letter that actually engages with the debate thoughtfully (e.g. as my 18-year old students have learned to do), instead of wasting paper with “faith/community/rights” gibberish.

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