"To Bear Arms": A Gun Debate Primer for ESL Teachers

"To Bear Arms"
A Gun Debate Primer for ESL Teachers

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 30,297 views

If you teach ESL, wherever that may be, and your curriculum encourages a focus on current events, then a discussion of guns is inevitable.

Much like race, politics and inequality, firearms ownership is a contentious and illustrative topic which will bring up very useful language and provoke plenty of comment and discussion. Equally importantly, for me, it’s a lens through which the modern United States can be seen, and its various, connected strands of policy and belief can teach important lessons.

On a personal note, I’ve found that the vitriol, fervor and legal certainty of many Americans when it comes to gun ownership has been entirely absent from the ESL classroom. No other country in the world has a relationship with firearms, or a history of their involvement in national affairs, quite like that of the United States; similarly, no other nation has been through the legal quagmire and confusion that the US has endured as a result of the notoriously clunky and obfuscating Second Amendment. Finally, let me be clear that I grew up in the UK, where firearms laws are very strict, that I regard those laws as probably the most appropriate legal framework, and that I find the American gun obsession strange, inexplicable and legally shaky. As a result, I teach the debate ‘in the round’, simply helping my students to understand where this whole confused mess came from.

5 Steps for a Gun Debate Primer for ESL Teachers

  1. 1

    Lies, Damn Lies, and…

    Your students will be amazed by US firearms and homicide statistics. Here’s a taste:

    • In 2013, there were 33,636 firearms-related deaths in the US. Of these, 21,175 were suicides, 11,208 were homicides, and 505 were accidental.
    • In 2010, 67% of all US homicides, and 60% of all suicides, were carried out with a gun.
    • Between 1968 and 2011, 1.4 million Americans were killed using firearms (roughly the modern population of Bahrain)
    • In 2009, there were slightly more handguns (114 million), rifles (110 million) and shotguns (86 million) in total in the US than there were people (306 million). Somewhere around half of all US homes have a firearm.
    • Around two-thirds of gun-owners cite personal protection from crime as the main reason for owning a weapon. There are very roughly a million incidents each year of private individuals protecting themselves with a firearm. The other most common reasons for gun ownership are hunting and sports shooting.

    This is a good place for your students to begin. Ask them to find out statistics and trends, either nationally or for a particular state or city. These could include:

    • Rates of firearms ownership, and whether it is growing over time
    • Incidences of mass shootings
    • Incidences of police shootings
    • The local situation regarding licenses and ‘concealed carry’ permits.

    Then, I think it’s important to put the situation in context and look at rates of firearms-related homicide for other countries. Depending on the source and method of presentation, your students will find that the US has the highest per-capita firearms homicide rate of any developed nation, and around 18th overall (behind Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, which have enormous problems with gang violence). In contrast, Iceland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the UK all have rates so low that they’re almost negligible.

    It’s also worth looking at gun laws around the world - Wikipedia has a concise summary - and noting just how restrictive most are, compared to the US.

  2. 2

    So, How Did We Get Here?

    I often advise teachers to tread carefully when handling sensitive topics, and this is a prime example. Why do Americans shoot each other, and themselves, in such enormous numbers? Is it due to the availability of guns, or the prevalence of poverty, or something in American culture? Can these tragedies be prevented by gun control, or should we look elsewhere for a solution?

    If, like me, you sometimes find it difficult to stand back from such a contentious topic and simply ‘teach the debate’, then careful preparation is needed. Personally, I’m looking for a vigorous debate with plenty of high-quality information brought in to support arguments. I step in to add data, steer students away from conclusions which are born from an unfamiliarity with the context (e.g. relating gun violence, or crime more generally, with certain races) and to challenge wobbly thinking when I hear it. The rest of the time, I let things develop as they will; only toward the end, if at all, will I present my own views. Front-loading your own opinions can be a problem, as your students look up to you and will be shy of arguing the opposite side.

  3. 3

    The Second Amendment

    Gnarly and woefully unclear, these 27 words have both defined and muddied the gun debate, especially in recent decades. Show the amendment to your students, pre-teaching the complex vocabulary, and ask them what it means:

    “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.”

    Point out first - with apologies to the Founders, who inexplicably parted with their excellent tendency toward crystal clarity - that this sentence is unhelpfully ungrammatical and that at least one of its commas (after ‘Militia’) appears extraneous. Then, ask one or more of the following:


  4. What do you think they mean by ‘Arms’ in the late 18th century? Would this, in your view, cover knives? What about stun guns, tear gas, hand grenades, guided missiles and nuclear weapons, none of which had yet been invented?
  5. What could an official do which might ‘infringe’ on this right? Would it be outside of the scope of the amendment, for example, to require that personal firearms are stored at a barracks or police station, rather than in the home?
  6. What exactly do they mean by ‘keep’ and ‘bear’? Do either of these words convey the same meaning as ‘own’? (This couldn’t be more important. In my personal view, and I’m not alone, the amendment does not guarantee the right of massed, individual, private firearms ownership; it simply permits members of the militia to sequester guns in their home and bring them to drill).
  7. Does ‘well regulated’ mean the same to you as it might have meant to the Founders? (Hint: it doesn’t. In 18th century parlance, this meant a militia that met often for practice and drill. You might point out that the militias were not a standing national army, something of which the original 13 states were extremely wary after their experience fighting the British).
  8. On face value, to whom does this amendment apply? Your choices are basically: 1) everyone, or 2) members of the militia. There’s also a contentious third option: it could be argued that, given that we now have a standing army and no militias to speak of, the amendment applies to nobody at all.


  9. 4

    The National Rifle Association (NRA)

    Few acronyms are as emotive as this one. Have your students find out the basic mission of the NRA and - critically - how this has radically changed over time. Having been a relatively quiet gun safety and training organization for most of its history, the NRA changed direction in the 1970s and became a powerful political organization (so much so, incidentally, that President Bill Clinton blamed the NRA for wiping out the democrat congressional majority in 1994).

  10. 5


    There are so many options, but here are some of my favorites:

    Justified or Not? Invent some situations where shootings have taken place - from the serious to the frivolous - and ask your students whether these killings were justified.

    Policy Shop. Have your students re-draft the Second Amendment for modern times. Ask them to clarify their preferred laws on personal firearms ownership and use. Perhaps also ask for recommended punishments for those who possess or use firearms outside of the law.

    Referendum. Create two different re-draftings of current national gun laws and ask your students to vote on them. One could continue the status quo while the other introduces greater restrictions.

    Bowling for Columbine. They might not make it all the way through the movie without shedding tears, but Michael Moore’s powerful documentary will stay with your students. Moore appropriately connects gun crime with larger cultural problems of violence, race and inequality.

    Speech Writing. Ask your students to write speeches for occasions related to gun violence, e.g.:

    • The passing of a new gun-control law
    • The repealing of the Second Amendment
    • The aftermath of a massed shooting or assassination

    Court Cases. This is where it can get really fun, and where your own creativity can help. Invent a court case involving firearms ownership or crime, and divide your students into the prosecution and defense teams.

    Debate Time.  Hold an old-fashioned debate with the topic: “This house believes that the Second Amendment should be abolished”, or, “This house believes that gun ownership is a human right”. Elicit more titles from your students until you find one that everyone is excited about.

It’s hard to overstate just how controversial and intensive the gun debate has become in the US.

By turns, the two sides have shown themselves to be naïve, misguided, dishonest, out-of-touch, confused, corrupt, power-hungry, intellectually lazy, revisionist, racist, blinkered, tone-deaf and spiteful, so it’s difficult to get a genuine sense of where the debate stands at present. No single lesson, or even a week of them, will thoroughly prepare your students to participate in this debate, but they should know that they have a voice, and that even in matters as seemingly intractable as gun violence and the Second Amendment, change is inevitable.

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