As you may have seen blip by you on your news feed, a student at Arizona State University was shot and killed last Saturday at an intersection near campus.
I teach many students like Yue Jiang at ASU. I know that she might have gone by her surname in her first-year composition class, like many of my Chinese students do. She may have accidentally called me “Sam” when I told her to call me by my “first” name, and we’d have all had a laugh about it. I know that she probably took eighteen credit hours or more, learning advanced economic concepts and writing essays in her second language. I know that she probably missed Chinese food something awful and WeChatted with her family whenever possible, because she probably became homesick very easily. Like any student studying abroad would.
I didn’t know Yue Jiang , but I saw firsthand that when the Flagstaff shooting happened and the Colorado shooting happened (and the…please fill in all of the terrible shootings that keep happening in our country with your subconscious, because my conscious mind is having a hard time admitting them to be real), the international students I teach were scared. These horrific murders would scare anyone, but imagine confronting these realities as an outsider here, without a support system and with little understanding of why this keeps happening in the country you’ve chosen to call home for four years.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any nineteen-year-old student at ASU, resident or not, who knows that any citizen can go onto Craigslist or to a gun show (both “private sellers”) and buy a handgun, so long as they buy their bullets for said handgun from a different private seller. That anyone at such a gun show can even buy a semi-automatic weapon sans background check, too (again, “private sellers”). Even I didn’t know this in full-fledged detail until my husband, who was born and raised in Arizona and remembers when the laws were changed, told me last night.
It’s hard to have open conversations about this because, as you know, our gun control position is not really our own, but rather somebody else’s abstraction of the issue to which we align ourselves whole-heartedly, calling on history and pride and independence while forgetting history and pride and independence. Everyone’s a hypocrite, because no one’s talking honestly about it. My uncle gave me a hard time at my wedding for having shot a gun at a stick and posed for a picture with my new husband on the Navajo Nation because “wasn’t I a liberal?”
As an instructor of English with liberal-leaning politics, the fact that I’ve touched a gun taints my politicized stance that crazy people shouldn’t be able to easily buy a gun in the state where my students come to class every day. Confused? I am.
So imagine you’re nineteen and have just moved half way around the world to study at Arizona State University, which recruits international students heavily because the school really values their presence money. What would you know about our complex legal system at all, let alone the bullshit way we talk about gun rights/control? I can’t even think of a non-incendiary, non-binary term to use right now. I could dig through my social media feed and find many one-sided memes, though, were you to ask me.
My students are constantly struggling at analyzing complicated ideas in English, and as you know if you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, understanding nuance and context is difficult. My students might ask you what ‘Colbert’ means if you bring up a skit you once saw on the Colbert Report. Some of them are terrified of the possibility of being shot and are also abstractly ‘pro-gun’ (as if one could only be pro- or anti- guns), perhaps because a teacher they respected along the way, professed ‘their side’ on the argument—and perhaps even in another state with different, complicated laws.
Am I any better?
I know that even when my colleague wrote a beautiful, painstakingly accurate description of why we shouldn’t have to be afraid of dying or having to protect our students when we teach, my first gut reaction was to share it with my students and then to quickly turn around and say: ‘But we shouldn’t live in fear, we need to stay calm, we’re [probably] safe here, blah blah blah.’
But you know what? Now one of their peers is dead. Another one of my colleagues has to continue teaching his section of English 107 with grieving students and an empty seat.
When ASU received a gun threat last semester — which was not communicated directly to any students or faculty members — my international students were especially terrified. They had seen and shared a post that blipped by them on their newsfeed. They didn’t want to come to school that day, and not just because they could totally use the extra four hours of sleep. They had no idea why they hadn’t been informed about the threat via an official channel. They, like most students, didn’t know the protocol for such a situation. But they, unlike their American counterparts, were left particularly on the outside of the situation. They didn’t know to follow ASU Police on Twitter, or if they did, how to interpret some of the vague language the police tweeted.
One of them e-mailed me thirty minutes before class time — which happened to take place during the supposed threat hour — and that’s how I, an Instructor at ASU, found out about the threat. Hours after that time had passed, somebody official sent me an e-mail telling me to “progress as usual.” I’d cancelled classes, not wanting to be the reason why a student who would probably risk death for participation points was walking around campus, sweaty palmed and jumpy. ASU authorities had wanted us to remain calm, understandably, and probably to avoid a potentially horrendous PR nightmare.
When I tried to talk to my students about the (as it turned out) empty threat the next day, it was difficult for me to know how to frame the conversation. It was beyond difficult for them to dissect the sound bytes available to them en lieu of serious information.
Consider this: A lot of my Chinese students are using Google for the first time. They’re learning to do research in a different culture, with different academic expectations and a completely different ideological framework. I’ve had to explain to each of my classes that Google is not a resource that they can cite, but a database that helps them find the resources they need. I teach them how to try to look at each resource in its particular context. This concept may not strike you as particularly new or enthralling, but we have a very different idea of authorship in the US. Trying to understand the rhetorical context of a piece of writing takes time for every student; for many international students, it’s an even longer process.
So what happens when such a student happens to google ‘gun control laws in Arizona,’ and they learn that this fine state ‘respects the right of law-abiding citizens to openly carry…’? It’s not like the NRA, the first hit I got (no pun intended), would actually say Hey, lady who escaped trouble from the law in Missouri, wanna come to Arizona and buy a gun from a private seller? Just because you are deranged and feel like causing some mayham before you die? Because you can. Just don’t go through a federally licensed seller, ok? Keep that shit on the down low for us, ok?
It’s easier to see a culture more clearly — and to criticize one — that’s not your own. When I was living and teaching in Spain, I found it ludicrous that I never heard the name “Franco” mentioned in class. But I hardly hear the following question at home: What could our international students teach us about our own culture? What would they find ludicrous? If we asked — and we listened — we’d find we should be ashamed of creating and supporting the system that, for instance, encourages international students to pay a lot of money for an American education and then fails to protect them in so many regards. I’m embarrassed that we fail to even encourage honest discussion about the laws in place and the very real effects those laws have on anyone trying to make a life here. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of eloquent essays on the issue, but most of us aren’t reading them—especially if we’re inclined to disagree on a basis of “principle.” And that’s embarrassing. Whatever “side” you find yourself on, you should be embarrassed, too.
How easy it is for all of us—not just the international students, say, but me as well—to stay willfully uninformed? If I go through the trouble, I’ll find the ‘Find State Laws’ description on AZ gun laws, which comes in a handy Google-featured box. It’s unhelpful:
“Arizona gun control laws are among the least-restrictive in the United States. Arizona law states that any person 21 years or older, who is not a prohibited possessor, may carry a weapon openly or concealed without the need for a license. (A concealed carry permit is required in most other states.)”
Ok, so what about purchasing a gun? Because that’s all somebody like Holy Davis needs in order to follow through with her plan. And you know what? Even the NRA leaves that column blank, perhaps because the truth is undeniably absurd. I’ve grown up and lived in a few different states; I teach rhetoric and composition; I know to dig a little deeper. I can more easily understand what’s not being said in that legal description. But even I am baffled when I check out this particularly murky passage:
“Federal law does not require dealers to conduct a background check if a firearm purchaser presents a state permit to purchase…”
Ok, I think I’m ok with that. You had to get a background check to have this permit, right?
“… or possess firearms that meets certain conditions.”
Wait, what? What conditions?
“As a result, concealed weapon permit holders in Arizona are exempt from the federal background check requirement when purchasing a handgun.3 (Note, however, that people who have become prohibited from possessing firearms may continue to hold state permits to purchase or permit firearms if the state fails to remove these permits in a timely fashion.)…”
Ok, so somebody with a special permit can own a gun. I might be ok with that? But what about that weird parenthetical, which seems to indicate that the State may sometimes just mess this up a little bit? Hm. I’m a little concerned now.
“…Arizona does not require private sellers (sellers who are not licensed dealers) to initiate a background check when transferring a firearm.”
What. What? “See Private Sales Policy Summary.” (via http://smartgunlaws.org/background-checks-in-arizona/)
So if you want, you can go through this legalese with me and seek out that policy summary, which would give you more information on this little loophole that allows anyone, background check or no, to participate in a ‘gun transfer’ from a ‘private seller.’ What I’m understanding, albeit very imperfectly — because it’s difficult, even as a citizen of the US, to understand these various complicated and intertwined laws and loopholes — is this: As my husband said, anyone can purchase a gun privately, even if they are not legally allowed to own or carry one. Great job, law!
All of this to say: We argue about gun control often, but we don’t really talk. We yell unrelated facts loudly, ignoring the real implications of the laws we do or do not support. Notice I haven’t even mentioned that international students at ASU most American citizens probably don’t know the history of the second amendment in its full rhetorical context. I didn’t understand the connection of the second amendment to protecting the system of slavery until recently, mostly because I, like most people from the south, are very unlikely to engage the idea of slavery directly. On occasion, perhaps, but not as a rule, and not as directly relates to the hundred plus years of law that have been decidedly influenced by the culture of the pre- and post-war south.
What is going on here? Why do we always choose the easiest path away from the hardest conversations? Why didn’t I write this until somebody in my particular cohort was murdered? If we owe anything to Yue Jiang ’s parents, it’s to grow up and start talking about these laws more openly in our communities. To talk about the history of gun legislation in the United States, and to dissect the language to find out who such laws are actually protecting.
If our humanity doesn’t convince us, perhaps the impending loss of capital might.
Sara Sams is a poet, essayist and translator from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She currently teaches composition to second language learners at Arizona State University. All opinions are her own and do not reflect the policy of ASU.
Clipart from the public domain, assembled by Mene Tekel.
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