Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Guns in Libraries: In which Alex courts controversy

A decision by the Michigan state Supreme Court ruled on November 21 that the state’s gun laws prohibit libraries from banning firearms from their premises.  Excuse me a moment while I gag.

Sorry, thought that would make me feel better, but it didn’t.  Oh well.  

My feelings on gun ownership in general should be obvious, and this ruling now forces me to confront the possibility that my chosen place of work will be less of a safe haven than I would have liked.  More important, the library as an institution will seem like less of a safe haven to patrons around the country that we are trying to woo through our doors, not drive away from them.

Because, unfortunately, the Michigan situation is not an isolated one.  Seattle library patrons are now free to carry through the stacks as well, while Minnesota library visitors have been able to pack heat right along, though residents recently learned that the law is even looser than they thought.  And in Richmond, protesters have staged a demonstration to convince library officials to abandon a policy that they claimed did not clearly-enough enshrine their right to carry a concealed deadly weapon in the library building.

They did so while flaunting the heat they were packing.

The Michigan case was actually sparked by a protest in which gun advocates marched through the Lansing library with weapons bared.  They responded to a policy designed to avoid panic by engaging in the panic-inducing behavior itself.  

Are these folks right to demand that libraries acquiesce to their version of Constitutional rights?  Does the nature of libraries require us to craft our policies in such a way that the right to concealed weapons is protected in our buildings?

The Grey Area

Libraries exist in a bit of a grey area between public and private space.  Are they a public institution?  They take our tax money, they’re open to all, they claim to be there to serve our needs, and librarians often describe themselves as public servants.  The word ‘public’ is right there in the name some of these organizations use!  Thus, one could argue, libraries have no call to limit the rights ensured by our most sacred legal documents, any more than the government does.

Yet at the same time, libraries are webbed with a complicated network of self-determined regulations.  They are not a monolithic institution administered by the federal government, but a patchwork of many administrative practices and organizational origins, from the hands-on of local government to the near-autonomy of pseudo-corporations.  No one criticizes their prerogative to deny service based on any number of common-sense considerations.  Libraries routinely decide whom they serve and do not serve--the most prominent variable, for better or worse, based on perceived indigence.  People get banned from libraries every day for a great variety of infractions determined in-house.  

And everyone knows that the word ‘public’ in ‘public libraries’ really just describes, broadly, its target user base, right?--so as to set them apart from the more sharply-defined school, academic and special libraries, demonstrating that each of these is clearly cloistered to one extent or another.

In short, ‘public library’ does not mean ‘federal agency library,’ and is thus not one of the institutions that the Bill of Rights is meant to protect us against.

The physical access prerogative

The fact is that you’d probably have to look at each public library in turn to determine its level of autonomy, but most of them exist within systems where they are granted significant leeway to determine their service parameters themselves.  So the hand-wringing over the rights of gun owners to carry in a library is a bit of a canard--library administrators have as much authority to determine who is allowed within their walls, and why, as any grocery store or coffee shop manager.

I find it amusing that second amendment fetishists are often among the same people who believe ("in theory," to be sure) that business owners should be able to limit who patronizes their enterprises based on race or sexual orientation, yet they bristle violently at the idea of an institution that limits its patronage based on whether or not they put their gun away before coming over.  It’s a funny twist.

If I knew a man was carrying a knife in his pocket at my library, I’d ask him to leave and come back without it, and there are no laws against that--and it would be completely controversy-free if it accorded with my library’s policies.  But swap a knife for a gun and those policies become suspect.

But is it possible to consider that my position--that gun owners should be asked not to carry weapons into my library--is as unethical as I believe limitations based on race or sex or orientation to be?  

I would say no.  This is a public safety issue, not one of discrimination based on an immutable or quintessential personal characteristic.  It’s not an integral hardship to leave your gun behind when you venture into various public and private spheres--you take it home, you come back-- whereas a person can’t stop being black or gay to gain such access. Being barred on the basis of those immutable qualities  can cause a great deal of emotional distress.

Gun owners might claim emotional distress at being barred entry with their guns, but to me that means they are either emotionally unstable, lying to accentuate their case, or both.

A gun is an object, nothing more.  Put another way, I really like my Game of Thrones memorabilia, but if, upon entering a library, I learned that it constituted a potential disruption to other patrons’ use of the space, I’d depart and leave it home next time.  

And if you are too afraid to face the world without your deadly security blanket, I’m not sure what to say to you.

Why I feel like guns suck in general

Let’s talk about that, then--the why of carrying guns about to begin with, not just in libraries, but anywhere.  

Gun owners like to say that their armed presence can prevent or reduce the severity of violent tragedies.  They also like to tout themselves as more responsible and ‘more law-abiding’ than other law-abiding citizens, whatever that means.  But I don’t think we can take that claim seriously as long as this keeps happening.

And it happens a lot.  Guns left for kids to kill themselves, guns left in public restrooms, guns accidentally discharging at gun safety courses, well-trained public safety officials making blunders with their guns--this stuff happens with alarming regularity.  

But we should permit such accidents to continue based on the slim hope that a gun-wielding good guy will successfully land a killshot on a shooter in a highly stressful, less-than-ideal firing situation?  Sorry, my library should not become a war zone in response to the actions of a single disturbed individual.

The last word you need to hear on the subject should be this: “Children between the ages of 5 and 14 are eleven times more likely to die from an accidental gunshot [in the United States] than in other developed nations.” Clearly more guns are not the answer.

The library is supposed to make everyone feel welcome, but welcoming gun owners with their weapons would make a lot of people uncomfortable.  I’m one of them.  People don’t want weapons in the place where they learn, browse, take their kids.  By their nature, they are deadly objects, all too prone to accident.  That’s why many libraries have policies against such things, and why I am aghast at the trend epitomized by the  Michigan ruling.

I welcome all people to the library, gun owners included.  They should be comfortable in any public library in the nation.  But not with their weapons.  I do not welcome them.

Final Words

My personal preference is obviously for the barring of firearms of all kinds from libraries, and I think we have a legitimate case for saying that it’s legal and precedented to impose such a ban.  Writing implements, recording equipment, communication devices, and so on are already banned in many libraries and no one screams ‘infringement of first amendment rights.’  

Furthermore, all kinds of activities that are constitutionally protected are, nonetheless, abridged for appropriate reasons in certain contexts.  Public safety and security is one of those reasons.  And again, the Bill of Rights delineates protections you have against your government, not other individuals or entities.  (That’s why Sarah Palin is wrong every time she screeches about infringement of her First Amendment rights when journalists speak against various crackpot policies she espouses.)

But I get that there are laws and a Constitution that says you can have guns  and places in the country where it might actually be the will of the majority of people to carry them in public places.

Fine.  I’ll avoid those parts of the country.  

The big problem I have is when pro-gun advocates turn libraries into weapon-strewn circuses to make a political point, potentially dismaying patrons in the process.  Flaunting your firearms, knowing full well that in any public context, there will be people who are uncomfortable with being in the presence of such items--and with good reason--is not responsible activism for your cause.

(For what it’s worth, I believe that in-your-face activism is appropriate when it comes to causes that aren’t related to advocacy for items or activities representing a threat to bodily function.  Gay kiss-ins, a-okay; gun-waving rallies, not so much.  A gay kiss won’t kill you, but one overly-caffeinated gun-nut in a crowd of otherwise responsible protesters might.)

Advocate for your position.  Sign petitions.  Hold signs outside the building and march around a bit.  Call your congressman and your library board members.  These are all examples of responsible political action.

Gun-waving in protest of a ban, when the point of that ban is to spare people the anxiety  that guns induce, and the actual danger that they represent--whether they are concealed or otherwise--is inflammatory, designed to stoke fear and to silence opponents.  It’s intimidation.

There’s a word for getting your way through fear and intimidation: terrorism.


  1. Alex, you are such a thoughtful writer. Thank you for this well-reasoned piece.

  2. You make sense to me. Unfortunately I think too many gun owners have some sort of mania, an actual mental state in which they are so paranoid or obsessive or whatever that reason is beyond them. Very sad.

  3. i wrote a comment to this but i decided not to post it, instead let me ask this, If a person has decided to take the time, energy, and money to go through all of the hoops and hurdles that is required in most states(a few do not require a permit,but still do a background check on anyone buying a weapon) who are you, or anyone else to say that we don't have the right to carry anyplace we choose? Maybe a better way of stating this is what gave you the right to write this and still protects that right? might i suggest if you or anyone else doesnt like a person with a weapon near them, England has a ban on everything but sporting guns. Not to say you should move but the right to bare arms is fundimental. there is a reason its is the 2nd amendment.
    That being said, i respect your veiw and when i carry i respect and follow any posted signs as well as know where i can and can't carry(ie a bar, even if im DD). If I am carrying you damn well should not know. My wife doesn't even know when i am carrying most of the time. there are very good reasons for this and with proper training and practice they make perfect sense. if you do not have a carry permit, get one. even if you dont carry. just to see what it takes, the time and money and the training that it takes. take a few training classes, Not all of us are manic or nuts. most people carry a pocket knife or a small flashlight with them. a Pistol is just another tool, and should be a last resort. Alex, if you would like, next time you are in town i would be happy to take you out shooting, its something i feel every person should at least be familiar with even if you choose not to own any guns. this might make you feel a little better about a person with a carry license.

    your mom can get a hold of me through facebook.