When I walked into my Constitutional Law class today, I heard the students speaking together in Chinese – with the distinct English words “Virginia” and “shootings” sprinkled in. The students are pretty media-savvy, and had been following the story in both Chinese and Western media. Two asked me immediately about the Second Amendment, and what the U.S. Constitution had to say about guns. So I had my link to constitutional law, and we spent the first hour discussing both the societal and the legal issues. (I don’t mean this to sound so coldly clinical – it was, of course, a horrific tragedy – but my job as a teacher is to see what lessons, if any, we can draw that are relevant to the subject matter of my class. Thus, a little intellectual detachment is needed even in the face of horror.).
We talked about the various meanings of the Second Amendment – those arguments for why it protects a personal right to own firearms, and those arguments for why it protects only a collective right connected to State militias. We talked about constitutional limitations, apart from the Second Amendment, on the ability of Congress to pass firearms regulation. We talked about American understanding of individual liberty that would have prevented the university from taking steps to get treatment for an emotionally disturbed student. And we talked about equal protection of the laws, and whether restrictions on immigrants possessing firearms would be constitutional.
I think it was a valuable discussion of constitutional law principles. But it was an even more interesting window on the students’ views of American culture.
I asked them if they worried that such a thing could happen at Xiada, and they immediately said no, it could not possibly happen here. They gave the obvious reason – China does not allow individuals to possess guns. But some people have guns, I said. Every time I pass the bank, I see armored car guards with guns. What would happen if an armored car guard went crazy – couldn’t he shoot 33 people with his gun?
They grappled with this idea, and concluded that the guard would act out his craziness in some other way, that even having a gun he would not necessarily think of shooting lots of people with the gun. China, they say, just doesn’t have a “gun culture” like the United States. (They think everyone in America owns a gun – they asked me if I owned a gun and were very surprised when I said no. I made them feel better, though, and told them that my dad owned a gun!).
Really, I said, China doesn’t have a “gun culture” – then why do my children come home from school each day playing bang-bang games with their fingers as guns? They did not do this in America. But, they insist, children play gun games here because they don’t have to be taught, like we do in America, that guns are dangerous and not toys and to leave them alone – they are likely to never see a gun much less possess one. So, playing gun games is proof that there is no “gun culture” in China! (But I will say in support of the “no gun culture” argument, that in all of my Chinese TV viewing I haven’t seen a single gun in any show.)
And, another student said, it would not happen here because Chinese do not have the “cult of individuality” like in America. If someone had seen this disturbed student in China, they would insist that he get treatment – yes, she added in response to my question, even if he did not want medical treatment. But, I said, people were worried about the student, but didn’t really have enough information to conclude that he would be so violent. She insisted that in China people know each other, and pay attention to each other, in a way that would have ferreted out his dangerousness in time for him to get treatment.
Another added that murders are so uncommon in China because of a culture of revenge – in the olden times, if someone were to kill one of your family members, then your family would respond by killing that individual and his family. She asked if I knew the old Chinese saying, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth!” I said I knew it as an old American saying – in fact, as a biblical saying! (I’m always tickled by these “ancient Chinese” things. I once heard two guides in China say they were going to sing an ancient Chinese song about two tigers – and the tune was “Frere Jacques!” But then, I once heard my French grandfather insist that the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a French folk song!). I asked if that sort of revenge killing still happened, and they all laughed and insisted that that happened long in the past.
So today I learned as much as I taught, I think. This, for me, is always the best part of being a teacher.