West Wendover, Nev.
“You have a right to your opinions,” U.S. government teacher Kathy Durham tells her seniors on a chilly morning here at West Wendover Junior Senior High School. “As long as you can back up and justify why you feel the way you feel, be proud of it. Own it.”
It’s a First Amendment reminder at the beginning of what’s actually a lesson on the Second Amendment—the right to bear arms, and one of the most controversial topics in American civic life, let alone the classroom.
Over the course of two class periods, Durham’s students will be presenting, analyzing, and synthesizing mock gun legislation. They can propose sweeping gun-control measures or advocate leaving gun ownership completely unregulated. But they will have to root their ideas in the historical and legal precedents they’ve been studying for the past week, and she insists that they maintain the tenets of civil discourse.
“It’s really easy to behave badly,” she says, noting the tenor of Twitter debates. “So I want you to have these conversations in a civil manner, so that instead of pushing each other apart, we can maybe grow closer together.”
Probably never in history has there been a time at which teaching about the right to bear arms has been more politically difficult—or emotionally painful.
The slaughter in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 people, most of them children, hovers like a gray cloud over the topic, with the echoes of Sandy Hook and Columbine not far behind. And it comes as gun regulation has returned to the upper tier of divisive political topics currently under debate.
If that weren’t enough, the powerful gun lobby has made clear its displeasure about teaching interpretations of the Second Amendment that don’t accord with its own. In a speech last month to the Conservative Political Action Conference, CEO of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, said that in too many classrooms, “the Second Amendment freedom in this country is despised.”
West Wendover high school teacher Kathy Durham came up with 17 activities for her classes, one to commemorate each of the lives lost in Parkland, Fla. The events aren’t mandatory for students; many take place out of school and aren’t endorsed by the district.
1. We write letters of hope to the students of Stoneman Douglas.
2. We march to the post office to send our letters.
3. We take the pledge to play our part to find and address the root of the problem of violence against students, teachers, and staff members in school.
4. We participate in an evening of civil discourse to begin conversations around the issue.
5. We interact with our youth council members for opportunities to improve and contribute to the community.
6. We host parent date night to reconnect with our parents in our school.
7. We engage with our city council members and police officers to ask for their ideas about how we can better serve and be served by our community.
8. We record the stories of our veterans by inviting them to share with us their memories and asking them what they would like us to learn and know about what serving their country meant to them.
9. We make a living tribute to our senior citizens by recording their stories of youth and asking about the difficulties of growing up during their adolescent years.
10. We serve as mentors to our younger students by a day of connecting with our fellow younger students.
11. We listen to the voices of our own students as we attend a dramatic reading performed by our drama students.
12. We work for our community in a day of community service projects.
13. We recommit ourselves to our education and studies by participating in a school wide homework night.
14. We move to a more physically active day by putting away our phones and internet and engaging in physical play and conversations.
15. We petition the special interest of our choice and challenge them to act to help us end violence in schools.
16. We gather for a night of unity to reflect, and celebrate all of our previous acts of engagement.
17. We walk out in reverence and in silence for all the work we have done and is yet to be done to put an end to school violence.
The resulting fear of complaints from parents, administrators, and communities means that the crucial topic is often taught out of context, minimized, or avoided altogether in civics class, education scholars say.
“My sense is that it’s very ahistorical, or it’s caught in the lens of ‘in the beginnings of our nation,’ or looped into larger studies of the Constitution,” said Marc Brasof, an assistant professor of education at Arcadia University, in Glenside, Pa., who has helped develop civics curricula. “My other sense is that little if anything is discussed about its evolution in terms of the legal expansion and contraction of rights—plus students’ current experience, based on what region of the country they’re living in.”
That last point is key. Similar to pickup trucks, smoking, and Friday night football, guns carry a specific cultural value in many communities.
West Wendover’s industry is service-oriented, dominated by the town’s five casinos. Most of the students here are Latino, and the town skews Democratic. Yet it sits in one of the most conservative counties in Nevada, and like many communities in rural areas, guns are woven into the fabric of life. A pawn shop on the main street into town advertises guns alongside watches and gold. And opinions about guns here cross political boundaries.
“People may vote Democrat, but there’s definitely a ‘nobody better put their damn hands on my guns’ kind of thinking,” said Daniel Corona, West Wendover’s mayor and a former student of Durham’s.
Students, too, have different levels of experience with guns. One young woman in Durham’s class noted that she has gone hunting with her family for years. A young man remarked that one of his cousins is violent, and the cousin’s father has refused to have a gun in the house.
Durham was aware of all those sensitivities going into this lesson, delivered just a week before the National School Walkout; she will be careful to keep her own opinions out of the classroom and, instead, focus squarely on facilitating discussion. Still, she ran the idea for today’s lesson past administrators and says that this type of teaching is difficult to do under micromanagement.
“I have complete faith that she’ll present both sides of an argument,” said Craig Kyllonen, the principal at West Wendover, about Durham’s teaching. “I’ll be honest; there are other teachers who might approach me [with a similar idea], and I’d think, ‘Hmmm.’ ”
If 18-year-olds can’t buy alcohol, they shouldn’t be able to buy a gun.”
It’s one student’s proposal, which has prompted the first group of students to focus on one of the most basic questions in the gun-control debate: Is 18, the federal minimum age at which people can purchase a shotgun or rifle from a licensed dealer, too young?
Most of the students agree that it is, but their opinions soon fragment. Several propose moving the age to 21, to align it with the age at which one can buy a handgun from a licensed dealer. Some are holding out for a higher age.
“You should be the age of 25, because at that age, you’re more mature,” one young woman says.
But that doesn’t sit well with Eduardo Perez, though he agrees with the general concept. “People mature at different ages,” he notes. “If it’s too high, I feel like people will be angry. They won’t be OK with that law.”
Student David Sharp offers a possible solution: Maybe the factor shouldn’t just be age but also training. People could complete some training requirements in order to buy one kind of firearm and then graduate to another tier in a few years once they’ve shown they can handle the weapon safely.
But then the students are forced to confront new questions: Who would provide the training? Who would enforce it?
As they recite their proposals one by one, Durham circulates, often forcing her students to anticipate and respond effectively to such questions.
A second group of students is grappling with several ideas to improve the background-check system to screen better for mental-health issues. (Currently, states voluntarily and often inconsistently submit records on people prohibited from owning guns for mental-health reasons to the FBI’s national background-check database.)
But they are running across the myriad of related issues that such a proposal would generate: What happens if someone is diagnosed with a prohibitive condition after already owning a gun? Should depression be enough to prevent someone from being able to purchase one? Should officials check on gun owners’ mental state every six months? Every year? Are social-media postings evidence of one’s psychological state?
Durham pipes in, noting that courts reviewing the law would also want to know whether such a proposal respected a person’s due process rights—and how that would accord with federal health-privacy laws.
“If you’re going to put in a background check for mental health,” she presses the students, “what is my right to defend myself on that? Can I appeal it?”
For a week in preparation for this exercise, Durham’s seniors have been parsing the Second Amendment’s convoluted phrasing, examining the evolution of federal laws, and reading about judicial precedents, including the District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognizes an individual right to gun ownership unconnected with belonging to a militia.
The preparation shows. At least one student references the United States’ historical prohibitions on enslaved people and Native Americans, among others, to possess firearms.
But like many teachers, Durham had to put these resources together from scratch, cobbling together sections of Nevada code with different interpretations of the Second Amendment from such sites as the Bill of Rights Institute.
Indeed, for such a crucial topic, educational publishers seem reluctant to engage in this most sensitive of topics. The textbook in Durham’s class references the Second Amendment apologetically as one of the most controversial in the Constitution and fails to suggest any activities so students can analyze why that is. The textbooks sit in the corner of the class, unused, for today’s lesson.
Durham notes that the online lesson plans, while helpful, often don’t require enough depth of thinking from students.
“I think they’re too easy, and it’s so they can give an answer key. But I don’t want an answer key. I want, ‘Responses will vary,’ ” she said.
There is also a key difference between the discussions she’s facilitated here and what a “pure” pro-con classroom debate on the Second Amendment might look like. And that is this: By the week’s end, Durham will require each table of students to blend their differing ideas and to compromise on a single proposal.
They may have to do so grudgingly, but as Durham likes to remind students, sometimes that’s what happens as a result of the fundamental democratic principle of compromise: “majority rule, minority rights.”
Durham’s second period of seniors is up now. This time the discussion is even livelier, and students are less willing to accede to their classmates’ proposals. They are pushing back more.
A difference of opinion breaks out between Raul Ruiz Soriano and the girl with the hunting background. He’s advanced a provocative idea: no rifles for anyone under 21, no exceptions.
“Some families rely on hunting,” she protests. “It’s not like 12-year-olds go out hunting all by themselves.”
“Our self-defense, our protection, is more important than your hunting,” Soriano replies.
Durham interjects, again in her role as a devil’s advocate: “Does that mean we end the manufacture of these guns? And what about the military?”
Later, student Dylan Wirth pushes back on expanded mental-health background checks. He wants a much more narrowly tailored law; many of his fellow students’ proposals are too “extremist,” he argues.
“How does this not infringe on the 14th Amendment?” Wirth asks, noting that the right to privacy enshrined in that amendment’s due process clause could conflict with a bill that would make ownership contingent on access to medical checkups.
Well, people who want a gun will have to waive that privacy in order to buy a gun, his colleagues respond.
“Then how are you not breaking the Second Amendment?” he protests. “You’re breaking the law by making a new law?”
“So, this is my right to privacy versus another person’s right to feel safe,” Durham summarizes the point of disagreement.
Later, she will confide that these were her two favorite moments in the lesson, because the students were grappling with the insight that Constitutional rights are interlocking and exist in relation to one another. The right to bear arms becomes difficult to regulate without bumping against rights in other amendments. It requires balancing collective and individual rights. And it shows why questions of constitutionality are so difficult—and so contested.
“They’re starting to see that it’s more complicated than passing a law,” Durham said of her students.
Durham and her students will spend the next class periods wrapping up the debate and starting to draft letters to lawmakers based on what they’ve agreed on in their groups.
It’s a lesson that she thinks has much more staying power than the lesson plans she’s used in the past, particularly because students are grappling with the Second Amendment alongside other rights enshrined in the Constitution. Before, she said, she used to teach the amendments one by one, devising hand signals and rap lyrics to help students remember them. Students promptly forgot them after the exam anyway.
“But I know they are not just going to remember this lesson—they are going to remember how to apply the learning,” she said.
And yet she remains concerned by one factor that was apparent over the course of the day: For many students here, Parkland already seems like something that happened a long time ago. Arming teachers, President Donald Trump’s major policy solution, came up only once during the debate.
“We were all shocked,” said Sharp, the student to propose a tiered training plan, when asked about Parkland.
Then he thinks for a beat: “But for some students, it’s kind of one of those things where they think it won’t happen to them.”
Durham hopes the focus in her lesson today on civil discourse will stick with students. She also wonders whether, outside the classroom, the larger debates on guns and on the Second Amendment miss the point somewhat.
“We’re talking a lot about the guns and restrictions and prevention,” she said. “That’s important. But we’re not talking about what’s causing the violence.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Teachable Moment for 2nd Amendment