School Safety: A Conversation with Dr. Burnett

    In light of recent events in Florida and, closer to home, the events from this past Friday at Central Michigan University, gun control and mental health awareness have once again reappeared in the national spotlight. The national tragedy rolls on. When I was a freshman in high school living three hours away from Newtown, Connecticut, I believed that change was imminent. While the Obama Administration and some state legislatures (including Connecticut and New York) updated regulations on background checks, access to assault weapons and the magazine sizes, it appears that it may not have been enough. Both weapons used in Newtown and Parkland were assault weapons in the style of the AR-15. It remains to be seen what the Trump Administration will do besides offer its condolences, but in the wake of the tragedy, the students across the country have walked out of school to protest the lack of appropriate legislation.

I sat down with Dr. Harvey Burnett, the chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, to learn more about this issue and get his personal take on the situation. In addition to his AU work, Dr. Burnett serves on the Buchanan Community Schools’ Board of Education, is a former president of the Michigan Crisis Response Association, an active law enforcement officer, a certified psychologist who works alongside the Counseling and Testing Center of Andrews, and a former member of the United States Air Force. All in all, Dr. Burnett is a man with diverse expertise in a number of areas relevant to the conversation.

I asked Dr. Burnett to quickly go over and outline the issue of gun control. We have heard both sides of the argument. Those who are against gun control regulation cite the Second Amendment, wherein citizens are entitled to the right to bear arms. The protest is that the amendment prohibits any encroachment on gun rights.

However, Dr. Burnett pointed out that the federal government reserves the privilege of regulating any right. Even a plain reading of the text bears out: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” A broad interpretation is required or else we would only be allowed eighteenth century muzzle-loaded rifles. It does not preclude regulation, only the inherent right to have a weapon. This is borne out in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court ruled that “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Those who on the pro-gun control side are now pressing for more stringent regulations, such as an older age minimum (Dr. Burnett noted that alcohol, available at 21, causes more injuries and deaths than guns, available in most places at 18), bans on assault weapons such as the AR-15, and deeper background checks.

We focused in on the AR-15, the assault weapon used in a number of recent mass shootings. As an Air Force man, Dr. Burnett informed me that the AR-15 is inarguably a “weapon of war,” not a hunting weapon. It and the bullets it carries are designed to shred and kill and inflict mass casualties. He told me that Michigan allows use of the AR-15 for hunting, with the restricted maximum of six bullets in the magazine. But what purpose, he asked, does any average citizen outside of the military and law enforcement have for possessing such a weapon? I brought up the argument of self-defense against home invaders and government abuse. I gave my thoughts on the latter, noting that in this day and age it is ludicrous to think that any one individual or militia could stand up against the might of the United States government. As to home invaders, Dr. Burnett said that in most states, the law demands that guns be safe and securely stored away. In the case of home invasion, it is unlikely that any individual will have time to retrieve his weapon. The alternative is having it “underneath your pillow”, but to this Dr. Burnett recounted a sad story he heard in his days as a police officer in Detroit. Three teenagers broke into a Detroit reserve police officer’s home (he did not clarify their intentions) and managed to wrestle away the officer’s gun which he had near him while sleeping and shot him dead.  

Further on, Dr. Burnett disagreed vigorously with President Trump’s suggestion to arm teachers in schools. As a professor and law enforcement officer himself, he had much to say on the idea. The following is a summary of his words:

“The teacher’s job to educate and to teach. A good teacher feels the need to protect his/her students. However, teachers have a lot on their plate and often don’t have enough resources in managing a classroom. Now, to the question of does it make a teacher feel safer to possess a firearm. Teachers are not taught and trained to respond in safety situations. Even police officers in high-level stress simulations miss the target around seventy percent of the time. If you give a firearm to someone who did not sign up for this as part of the profession, to do far more than they have been taught to, you increase the risk of liability, of crossfire or accidental shootings. You also can’t expect teachers to go out and respond to a shooter. Fear and the other aspects of the natural human response inevitably kick in, and it is the duty of the teacher to protect his/her own students first. One must also consider the possibility that the teacher might himself have a mental breakdown. No amount of mental screening will ever predict if someone will decide one day to kill, whether others or himself. Workplace violence is a real and common issue in of itself. Also, one must consider that curious students (and I’ve had K-4 kids ask to touch my gun when I’ve gone into schools for presentations) or angry students may find their way to the weapon. Kids pay attention; they’re not stupid by any means.”

Instead, Dr. Burnett suggested that we invest the resources that would go into arming teachers into the education system—increase the number of trained school resource police officers in public schools, install better threat assessment policies and provide greater access to guidance counselors and mental health professionals. He also strongly urged accountability on all fronts: students, faculty and law enforcement must take seriously any concerns that individuals have and to even take preventive measures. It is always better to be safe rather than sorry.

Most important, he said, is “to look out for each other, check in on each other as a student body, and don’t be silent with your concerns. Especially on an Adventist campus it is easier to believe in the bubble, to think that it would never happen here. America will always have a problem with violence. Instead, we need to do the Christlike thing: to get to know your neighbors, to ask questions, to be personally involved, to build relationships. There are many individuals who suffer from thoughts on suicide and loneliness. It is our responsibility to know our neighbors, and if we see or hear something, to do something about it.”

Though this talk was the first time we had met, I got the strong impression that Dr. Burnett is a man of courage and conviction, one genuinely invested and interested in the education and welfare of his students. He also has a point: as a Christian university, we may be called to be apart from the world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t join the conversation. While to me it appears clear that Scripture does not condone any violence after the cross, it by no means discourages preparation and protection of the helpless. We must be ever vigilant of spiritual and physical danger. We have to be ready, we have to update ourselves on the school’s lockdown policies and we have to care for one another so that what does happen in the world might never be seen on our campus.


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