Trigger Warnings: How Guns are Re(Shaping) Education by Samantha Deane

In a 2016 welcome letter, the University of Chicago notified the class of 2020 that “trigger warnings” and intellectual “safe spaces” conflict with the University’s commitment to academic freedom, free speech, civility, and mutual respect (Schaper 2016). The University of Chicago’s letter and others like it have jump-started conversations about the intellectual and ethical merit of education in “safe spaces.” Yet, few have stopped to notice that conversations about safe spaces and sensitive pedagogy turn on language aligned with weapons. While pedagogical trigger warnings are meant to alert students to course material that has the potential to “trigger” prior trauma, a trigger is also a mechanism that propels a bullet from a gun. Moreover, a pedagogical trigger warning, akin to an idea warning, is distinct from the trauma trigger warning used by mental health professionals. The use of trigger warnings to cordon off safe spaces across university campuses raises questions about the relationship of triggers to safety.[i]

I am not interested in wading into the debate about the merit of using a trigger warning, per se. In fact, trigger warnings serve an important purpose. Rebecca Stringer (2016) puts it this way: “Trigger warnings are specifically for students with trauma backgrounds: for all other students they, are merely a courtesy” (p. 62). She goes on, “Trigger warnings- or, as I also call them, content forecasts- promote equality of access to education because they can allay the substantial disadvantages associated with being triggered…” (p. 62). Stringer’s linguistic shift is what I want to focus on. What changes when we call a pedagogical trigger warning a “content forecast” or “idea warning” instead of a trigger warning? In what follows, I argue that the rhetorical use of trigger warnings, when a “content forecast” will do, brings guns and the gun debate into both the classroom and newly constructed “safe spaces.” It is my contention that the extent to which we think about education in terms of violence shapes our ability to expand peaceful social projects, including the inculcation of free speech, academic freedom, mutual respect, and civility.

Guns (Re)shape Education

When we carefully examine the American history of guns and school, what we find is the phenomena of mass school shootings re-shaping the American narrative about schools and gun violence. More to the point, the explosion of rampage school gun violence in the 1990’s results in the eviction of guns from K-12 educational spaces and the legislation of guns onto college campuses.

According to Charles Cooke (2013) in the first half of the 20th century it was common for children to head off for school with a rifle slung over their shoulder and to return in the evening without incident. Cooke derides the withering away of “shooting clubs,” which he sees as the victim of “willful misunderstandings” about gun safety and political correctness. Cooke’s reading of the contemporary moment aside, the historical image he presents is intriguing. While Cooke harkens back to the 1970’s when “New York State had over 80 school districts with rifle teams,” given the myth of America’s birth by gun one can imagine a longer history of students carrying rifles to school. In fact, the first mention of school rifle teams in the New York Times comes in 1903 and accompanies a story about the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) resolutions following President Roosevelt’s failed effort to legislate a National Volunteer Reserve Militia. The NRA resolved: “That the National Rifle Association of America deems it expedient to take immediate steps to secure the affiliation with it of colleges, universities, and other educational institutions of the United States for the purpose of stimulating and encouraging rifle practice among the American Youth” (“Extended Rifle Shooting” 1903). Further, according the NRA’s historical memory, “by 1906, NRA’s youth program was in full swing with more than 200 boys competing” (“A Brief History of the NRA” 2017). Thus, from 1914 to 1983 a smattering of stories about local rifle team victories pepper the Times.

How one defines school gun violence, effects the date of its inauguration. The 1966 clock tower school shooting at the University of Texas, featured in the 2016 documentary Tower, was carried out by a former marine who to our best knowledge opened fire on a college campus at random. Then in 1974 Anthony Barbaro climbed to his high school’s third floor classroom and gunned down fourteen students (Fast, 2008). Barbaro’s decision to gun down students at his own school, appeared to be a significant shift from random gun violence to school gun violence. However, from Barbaro’s shooting in 1974 to 1991, a span of 17 years, only one other rampage school shooting occurred. It is not until the 7-year stretch from 1992 to 1999, that at least 11 episodes of school shootings explode across the United States. I say, at least, because according to some data “since 2013 there have been over 200 school shootings in America—an average of nearly one a week” (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2017). Clearly, what one means by “school shooting” dramatically affects these numbers. Everytown for Gun Safety, an anti-gun lobby and “movement of concerned Americans,” arrived at their number by including every incident where a firearm was discharged on or within school grounds. The figure drops dramatically when one removes everyday interactions with guns on school grounds including incidents like the accidental firing of a gun by a janitor who attempts to secure a misplaced gun (2016, Homosassa, FL), an argument that leads one boy to pull a gun on another (2016, Philadelphia, PA), and numerous incidents of suicide.[ii] When we narrow the focus to what Katherine Newman and her colleagues (2004) classify as a “rampage school shooting,” that is, shootings with multiple and often symbolic victims chosen at random, shootings that take place on a public stage at or within the school, and shootings that involve either students or former students of school, then rampage school shootings make up less than 10% of the 168 events reported by Everytown for Gun Safety.[iii]

The intensification of rampage school shootings prompted changes in the material and pedagogical function of the school. Following the eruption of rampage school gun violence in the 1990’s primary and secondary schools began adopting “zero tolerance” policies, which required schools to set formalized, predetermined disciplinary procedures for incidents of school violence, drugs and other unwanted behavior. Along with zero tolerance policies schools often installed metal detectors and began hiring school “resource officers,” who are most often off-duty police officers. Following the incidents at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, the National Rifle Association (NRA) added one more demand to the mix when they issued calls to arm teachers (Weatherby, 2015).

In all cases the school districts sought to respond quickly. As Tony Jenkins (2007) puts it, “Quickly responding to such events is essential; it can be the beginning of a process of social healing and a catalyst for the affected community to collectively address problems of common concern that may otherwise go unnoticed” (p. 366). While response is necessary, the panic that followed the outbreak of rampage school gun violence lead to superficial and often detrimental changes to schools and the education therein. In Do Guns Make Us Free? Firmin DeBrabander (2015), argues that the physical reconstruction of schools into fortresses with any of the following— resource officers, metal detectors, and armed teachers— happens only when society cedes to education under the gun. In higher education where the implementation of preventative measures is more costly and cumbersome, the effect of education under the gun often comes in the shape of legislation about campus carry. There are currently five states that allow campus carry and another five that allow campus carry but give schools the latitude to restrict guns if they can afford adequate security measures. When responses favor the armed teachers approach, the logic tends to go something like this: since guns are neutral carriers of human will, those who carry guns are naturally virtuous members of society who like a weary sheepdog keeps the wolves at bay (p. 15). In this scenario the mere presence of guns mediates the behavior, and thus safety, of others. Hence the gun rights activists who supported the dissolution of gun-free zones on college campuses in Texas took up the slogan “An Armed Society, Is A Polite Society.” And following the Virginia Tech shooting, Ted Nugent, a board member of the NRA, argued, “armed citizens are much better equipped to stop evil than unarmed, helpless ones” (Jenkins 2007, p. 368).

Contra the NRA, DeBrabander (2015) argues that guns breed a weariness of others, which make citizens less willing to engage with one another and ultimately less free. Drawing on Paulo Freire and John Dewey, DeBrabander goes on to argue that the forebodingness of modern schools modifies the likelihood children will be taught to communicate, to craft joint purposes, and to transform individual interests into shared ones—that is the likelihood children will be educated as democratic citizens (p. 173). DeBrabander draws on one of Dewey’s most significant contributions to the philosophy of education: schooling is not just preparation for life in democracy; education is democracy. How children and adults experience education, must match the purpose of education. Insofar as the aim of education, at all levels, is the inculcation of democratic habits of communication, cooperation, solidarity, reflection, experimentation, wonder, and peace then education should not be done with or under the gun.

“Because when a warning about a potentially controversial idea turns into a trigger warning, students are simultaneously told that arming themselves before they enter the classroom is an option…”

Trigger Warnings

As a noun, a trigger is the part of the gun that send bullets flying, so it is entirely appropriate that at some universities trigger warnings are, in fact, predicated on the material presence of guns. After the passage of Texas SB11, a law that granted students the right to concealed carry on campus, a Faculty Senate at the University of Houston took it upon itself to issue a series of trigger warnings for faculty (Myoer, 2016). The senate’s advice for faculty: use trigger warnings to protect yourself from students who might use their guns to take aim at you to settle disputes.  In other words, faculty at the University of Houston use trigger warnings to protect themselves from guns not to prepare students for traumatic material. Facing an expiring exemption on concealed campus carry the University of Kansas’ Faculty Senate urged the Kansas state legislator to extend the exemption stating: “current research indicates that the net effect of campus carry on the safety of college students, faculty, and staff is likely to be more death, more nonfatal gunshot wounds, and more threats with a firearm that are traumatizing to victims” (Shepherd, 2016). On April 4, 2017 it was confirmed that a stay would not be granted and that by July 1, 2017 all institutions of higher education in Kansas will be required to permit concealed carry, unless they can afford to implement security-screening measures. Thus far Kansas faculty have not issued their own “gun trigger warning” although the bulletproof professor is in (Adler, 2017).

The “gun trigger warning,” now joins two others the “idea trigger warning” and the “trauma trigger warning.”  While each warning has a place and purpose, warnings about classroom content do not need to invoke guns. And when content warnings go by the trigger, they invite a range of behaviors and logics that run antithetical to the Deweyan vision of education. Joining DeBrabander’s observations of the fortress/school with the now ubiquitous use of the trigger warning my argument is that insofar as schools but also, educational practices, bend toward linguistically affirming violence the classroom, students will learn to be weary of one another. While we cannot and should not ignore the possibility of a rampage school shooting, we can choose how this reality shapes the sort of education students receive. We can choose whether we allow guns to influence how we think about teaching.  Because when a warning about a potentially controversial idea turns into a trigger warning, students are simultaneously told that arming themselves before they enter the classroom is an option, but also that standing one’s ground might be more important than cooperating with fellow classmates. By renaming the ethical and pedagogical demand to thoughtfully introduce emotionally challenging material a trigger warning, the material reality of guns transforms the classroom.

Currently trigger warnings stand for two diverse threats. A gun trigger warning is appropriate in classrooms with guns. An idea trigger warning is never appropriate. A pedagogical preface, trauma acknowledgement, or content forecast, is always welcome. If we mean to educate students to treat each other with mutual respect and civility and are concerned with the realization of free speech, then we ought to scrub our pedagogical language of guns. We don’t need triggers to talk about good, student centered, Deweyan teaching. John Dewey (1998) encourages teachers to know their students, to gage experience, and to be cognizant of each student’s growth. Good, responsive teaching, teaching informed by Dewey’s idea that, “[the teacher] must survey the capacities and needs of the particular set of individuals with whom he is dealing and must at the same time arrange the conditions which provide the subject-matter or content for experiences that satisfy these needs and develop these capacities,” has been transformed into a trigger warning to the extent that guns have filtered into and reshaped educational spaces (p. 58). My argument is, the extent to which we think about education in terms of violence, shapes our ability to expand peaceful social projects, including the inculcation of free speech, academic freedom, mutual respect, and civility. Dropping the trigger from the content warning is an invitation to seriously consider the needs of each student, the intentional use of trauma warnings, and the communal crafting of safe spaces sans guns.

[i] Amy Shuffelton and I have developed these ideas further in an article forthcoming in the Springer International Handbook of Philosophy of Education.

[ii] The intention here is not to delegitimize incidents of gun violence that lead to suicide, to brush off the small events, or to ignore urban gun violence. Rather my focus is on instances of rampage school gun violence because they present a large scale change at the juncture of guns, kids, and schools. Search the interactive map of Everytown for Gun Safety to learn more about all these incidents:

[iii] I have intentionally, not focused on the details of specific or recent incidents of rampage school gun violence because the emphasis here is on the historical outbreak of rampage school gun violence across American educational institutions, and not any one incident.


Samantha Deane is a Ph.D. candidate in the Cultural and Educational Policy Studies program at Loyola University Chicago and works as a post-secondary and career development specialist with teens in Chicago. Samantha holds a Masters of Arts in Humanities, with a specialization in Plato, from the University of Colorado Denver. She currently studies the Philosophy of Education and her research centers on theories of democratic education, pragmatism, and contemporary school gun violence. Her dissertation aims to make sense of the continued presence of rampage school shootings in liberal democracy.



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