A lesson they’ll never forget

A cover of a book, Collected Poems, by Roger McGough, a drawing of whom -- a white man in his 60s bald in the middle with white hair on the sides, wearing glasses, a blue shirt with no tie and a black jacket, standing against what looks like a kitchen with plants and flowers on the worktopEvery time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, the anti-gun-control lobby insist that the right way to stop such incidents is for there to be more guns rather than less; that the best defence against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If the massacre is at a school, as with yesterday’s atrocity in Florida, the same people will call for teachers to be armed. The fact that no other country in the world has such massacres on a regular basis, and most other developed countries have none at all (or at least one or so every decade or two) does not occur to them. We last had such a massacre here more than 20 years ago, at Dunblane in Scotland, and the result was that the government introduced legislation to ban the keeping of handguns and automatic weapons by private individuals; only single-shot rifles are allowed, and then only by vetted and authorised individuals who need them for a lawful purpose such as hunting. When the founding fathers of the USA passed the Second Amendment, the weapons that they had access to were much less powerful than some of these.

Growing up in the 1980s, a staple of children’s verse that we all read was the work of Roger McGough, a Liverpool poet best known right now for presenting the Radio 4 show Poetry Please. One of the most memorable is called The Lesson, which opens with the caption “this poem raises the question: should there be capital punishment in schools?”. In it a teacher, angered by struggling yet again to make his voice heard above the din of the “nooligans”, uses a sword, a shotgun and his bare hands to slaughter the lot of them. Mid-way through, the headmaster put his head through the doorway and on seeing what was going on, “nodded understandingly, then tossed in a grenade”. Given that state school teachers are not the best-paid profession in most western countries and in some schools have to deal with threatening or abusive situations on a regular basis from children and adolescents that are bigger than them but with whom they are required absolutely never to transgress the limits of reasonable force, as well as having family crises, mental health problems (diagnosed or otherwise) or grudges and embitterments of their own, the chances of a teacher with an automatic weapon perpetrating a McGough-style “Lesson” are probably greater than one becoming the proverbial “good guy with a gun”. And that’s if teachers even want to carry guns into lessons.

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