A Modest Proposal for Shooting Students


With a bill allowing students, staff and visitors to carry guns on Idaho state university campuses about to be passed by the Idaho legislature, one professor has opted for a Jonathan Swift-style protest.

My brother Jonathan sent me this column, which appeared in the New York Times as a query to the chief counsel of the legislature about gun protocol. Professor of biology and criminal justice Greg Hampikian wants to know when it will be permissible to shoot a student:

I am a biology professor, not a lawyer, and I had never considered bringing a gun to work until now. But since many of my students are likely to be armed, I thought it would be a good idea to even the playing field.

I have had encounters with disgruntled students over the years, some of whom seemed quite upset, but I always assumed that when they reached into their backpacks they were going for a pencil. Since I carry a pen to lecture, I did not feel outgunned; and because there are no working sharpeners in the lecture hall, the most they could get off is a single point. But now that we’ll all be packing heat, I would like legal instruction in the rules of classroom engagement.

And further on:

I assume that if a student shoots first, I am allowed to empty my clip; but given the velocity of firearms, and my aging reflexes, I’d like to be proactive. For example, if I am working out a long equation on the board and several students try to correct me using their laser sights, am I allowed to fire a warning shot?

If two armed students are arguing over who should be served next at the coffee bar and I sense escalating hostility, should I aim for the legs and remind them of the campus Shared-Values Statement (which reads, in part, “Boise State strives to provide a culture of civility and success where all feel safe and free from discrimination, harassment, threats or intimidation”)?

Like the Swift of  “Modest Proposal” and “Abolishing of Christianity in England,” Hampikian makes his points obliquely. His side glance at the university’s Shared-Values Statement gets readers to examine that text with renewed respect.

Unlike Swift, however, the document that sounds most like “Modest Proposal” is the gun bill itself. In any country other than the NRA-cowed United States, the bill would sound like a sick joke. To put Hampikian’s letter in a Swiftian framework, it’s as though the Irish satirist has encountered a Parliament that is actually proposing to slaughter and eat babies and has written a response designed to bring people to their senses.

How successful will Hampikian’s letter be? If Swift is any measure, it’s discouraging to note that his satires didn’t stop England from exploiting Ireland, didn’t prevent England from introducing copper currency into the country, didn’t stop astrologer John Partridge from plying his craft, and didn’t (as Gulliver hoped) bring an end to party factionalism or cause judges to be learned and upright, lawyers honest and modest, women to be virtuous, honorable and truthful, journalists to be… In other words, even good satire has limited effectiveness.

Then again, Swift’s major goal was to raise awareness, even when it didn’t change behavior. Hampikian’s letter has done that.

One other thought: If Swift’s “Modest Proposal” is the most famous essay ever written, it’s not only because it is a rhetorical tour de force. It also has a dark energy that packs an extra punch. The modest proposer demonstrates such relish in describing baby recipes (and recall that Gulliver too is skinning babies by the end of Book IV) that one can’t help but wonder about Swift himself. If one were to plunge into his psyche, would one discover that he had a problem with babies? Or as I see it, that he was felt so painfully sensitive that he indulged in dead baby jokes to cover over a sense of violated innocence.

I bring this up because Hampikian is having a little too much fun imagining himself shooting students. Not that any of us would really shoot our students. But there are times in the semester when some of us might fantasize about it.

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