Professor Dan Kline says he won't teach with guns in the classroom, and if the Legislature passes a pending bill to require to the University of Alaska to allow them, he would quit if necessary to prevent it.
"I am unwilling to teach in the presence of a weapon," Kline said in his office at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he is director of the English Department, although he stresses he is representing only his own views, not the university's.
"I could seek another job, which honestly I have not considered up to this point. I love teaching here, I love the students, I love the work," Kline said. "We're doing really great things here at UAA that a lot of people don't know about, and I would hate to give it up."
Senate Bill 174 would strip the Board of Regents' ability to regulate concealed weapons on campus, although amendments added by the Senate Education Committee would let the regents keep weapons out of dormitories, health and counseling facilities and disciplinary hearings.
The university currently prohibits guns in its buildings, including dorms, classrooms, labs and meeting spaces, except for sanctioned activities. It has opposed the bill, as do many professors, student and faculty organizations, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which pointed out that high school students also attend college classes. Opponents say having guns on campus would lead to more deadly conflict and suicides.
Senator Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the bill's prime sponsor, says Alaskans have a constitutional right to guns on campus, and that armed students might stop mass shootings.
The bill follows efforts in other states, including Texas. Thursday, the architecture dean at the University of Texas at Austin quit over that state's new law allowing guns in class. He is going to the University of Pennsylvania.
I heard about Professor Kline's position on the issue from a friend who picked it up on social media. Kline has never taken a public stand like this before and he knows he is putting himself in the middle of one of our most divisive issues.
"I do fear reprisal and attack, and I can only imagine the kind of hate mail I will get," Kline said. "It's kind of scary for me, because I am more comfortable in libraries, and reading my studies and writing articles."
Kline grew up with guns. His father was a military contractor who moved the family around the country. After getting degrees at the University of Alabama, Kline studied to be a Baptist pastor and got a divinity degree. But he instead pursued a career as an English professor and was hired at UAA in 1997, soon after receiving his Ph.D. from Indiana University.
Violence has been a theme in his life. He said his late father was a large and volatile man who flew into unprovoked rages.
"I think the experience of violence is something that sensitizes you to it," Kline said.
Kline's specialty is the medieval period and his Ph.D. dissertation focused on violence directed against children in medieval literature. The subject took him deep into cultural analysis, which still fascinates him, as he takes apart the hidden motivations and unexamined beliefs we live by.
The gun debate is fertile ground for that kind of analysis. But here I'm talking about my views, not Kline's.
I grew up in Alaska and I think my attitude about guns is similar to almost everyone's when I was young: that guns are important tools. I own a gun for a purpose. I feel similarly about my chainsaw and outboard motor. I really like all three, but I don't worship them, and I don't need them constantly by my side.
Back then, people who were obsessed with guns were called "gun nuts." Somehow, the gun nuts are running things now. But their belief that every kind of gun should be available anywhere we go has nothing to do with the Alaskan tradition of using guns as tools. It sounds more like the product of paranoia.
What kind of coward feels the need for a gun in a college classroom?
Kelly's idea that armed students could get the drop on mass shooters is far-fetched. But even if it were to happen in some odd event, campuses would first have many more routine shootings by jilted boyfriends and drunk partiers.
In fact, Kelly's bill could enable mass shootings. Currently, campus officers can stop students with guns before they shoot.
Kline deals with tense situations all the time at UAA. College classes bring up difficult issues. He believes conflicts have become more frequent and could escalate with weapons.
But his basic concern is the effect on learning. The classroom is supposed to be a safe place to explore challenging ideas.
"We create a safe space, not just physically safe, but emotionally safe and intellectually safe, where people can risk and think through things in a context that they might not be able to other places," he said. "What happens in many college classrooms are extended and difficult conversations that can be highly emotionally charged for some people."
While some schools worry about issuing psychological trigger warnings about emotional material, UA professors would be worrying about actual triggers.
"The presence of a gun fundamentally would change the kind of things I would feel comfortable teaching and the way I would react and interact with students," Kline said. "There's an implied threat there. Not an implied threat. There is a threat there. Whether it is direct or indirect, the presence of guns is correlated with more violence."
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/wohlforthadn.
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