Philosophy and Firearms

Preston Covey wheeled himself into his office, then made his way to his desk chair. The office had high shelves full of books, mostly concerning guns. On one shelf devoid of reading material he had perhaps as many as 40 pipes, one of which he lit a few minutes after he entered the room.

Covey is a fully sworn deputy who has overseen training in firearms for the Sheriff?s Reserve of Allegheny County. He has had over 600 hours of deadly force training. He has co-authored and edited an official document for law enforcement firearms instructors.

But to the students of Carnegie Mellon, Covey is a philosophy professor. He has been at Carnegie Mellon for over 30 years, and he taught the current provost, Mark Kamlet, when Kamlet was a student here. Covey has accomplished many things in academia and beyond, including publishing work on gun control and training officers for Team One Network, a group devoted to police officer survival. And Covey?s many achievements have been completed with the use of only his left arm ? his right arm has been useless since he was 11 years old, due to polio. Later in life, post-polio syndrome caused him to lose most of the functionality of his legs as well. He is well aware of the fact that students are interested in their professors on a more personal level. As he explained, ?You want to know who the schmuck is that is standing
up there. You should know who that schmuck is. You
should just know it and then you will know whether it makes a difference to you or not.? About his own disabilities, he recognizes the fact that ?People are going to be curious. I?m curious too, about people with disabilities.?

As part of his open attitude, Covey is not shy about his struggle with his ?foul mouth.? He has even allowed his students to monitor his use of the F-word, telling his students: ?You get a dollar for every time you catch me out using the F-word, not mentioning it.? Covey noted that it counts only as a ?mention? if he quotes someone who said the F-word. Students only earn their dollar if he uses the F-word himself.

When asked what he thinks makes him stand out most from his colleagues Covey replied, ?One thing that distinguishes me from my eminent colleagues is my foul mouth. And two, I?m not shy of using it. I?m not afraid of nobody and I?ll use my foul mouth, not my guns. I?ve got an arsenal of guns bigger than the National Guard ... but know I will use my foul mouth and whatever parts of persuasion or argument that are at my call from philosophy.? He chuckled, after a moment of deliberation, ?I think those are two things that would distinguish me. I?m not proud of those two things, but I think they would distinguish me.?

Yes, Covey has quite a few guns. His collection includes a federally licensed submachine gun, some assault rifles, and a Glock that he received in place of a ring when he married his wife, Denise Troll Covey. When his colleagues first discovered that he had guns they were taken aback, and Covey said he began to think about the issue of firearms in general. He explains what he was thinking at the time: ?I totally understand why people are uptight about people, even people they know, having guns. What I really need to do is look into this, the gun control issue. And while I?m at it, I think I should get some training.? Hence, 600 hours of deadly force firearms training. When asked if he faces fire now for his feelings on gun control, he said, ?The answer is no. And the reason is because my colleagues from bottom to top here at Carnegie Mellon really are intellectually honest and tolerant.?

Covey admits he cannot be sure of how his students feel about his self-proclaimed status as ?a gunnie.? He speculates that, ?They?re intrigued by it, perhaps put off by it, but intrigued, and they want to know more. Which is what I would wish my effect on my students to be. Whatever kind of clown I come off as being, I would wish that the
effect on my students as being they want to know more. Wonder begins inquiry and if they are wondering about me, well maybe they?ll sit still long enough for the videos and the readings [that allow them to] dig into the issue.?

Do the students with whom Covey works with believe that his opinions will affect their grades? They shouldn?t. ?Do not worry about whether you agree with me or I agree with you, because it?s totally irrelevant,? Covey emphasized. He added, ?A good teacher, a pedagogue, should always be thinking about ?What is my image to my students, how am I coming across to them?? ?

Covey has a particular desire to help his students that goes beyond invoking wonder about the more controversial parts of his studies. ?The students ought to know that there?s someone they can go to, like the priest at the corner church when they?re like, ?I don?t know what to do with this problem.? Well, they ought to know there?s someone you can go to,? Covey said. With over 50 advisees of his own, Covey declares he?s got a pretty bogged down schedule. ?I?m like the old woman who lived in the shoe,? he said with a smile, ?who had so many children, she didn?t know what to do.?

If one thing seems central to Covey?s feelings on the study of philosophy, it?s accountability: ?What does
philosophy ask of any of us? Simple: account for yourself, account for what you believe, account for reasons why you believe it. Period.? As for ethics as a subset of philosophy, he said, ?Philosophy is about accountability and ethics is about accountability for the messiest of human problems. How do you know and, holy damn, how would you try to prove it??

Covey has spent most of his life trying to answer those ?messy? problems of ethics and philosophy. And when he is not researching issues such as gun control, he is teaching the students of Carnegie Mellon about the principles of ethics and philosophy. Speaking of what led him to what he is currently working on, he said, ?I?m dedicated to certain principles, and from those principles of my experience I generated what I?m doing now....I care about my students and I care about my colleagues, and I care about my University.?