Content warning: descriptions of violence. Note: The above image is from a regional active shooter training at Deering High School in Portland, MI, in which students lay on the floor simulating victims. Credit: Derek Davis, Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
It is easy to view email as a task list, what was once a means of connection now a nagging receptacle for chores. It’s also easy to put off, if only temporarily, unread messages piling high in one’s inbox, a drudgery best fit for another day. So when that day finally came and I waded through the slough of missed deadlines and expired promotions, it was with little surprise that I learned I was overdue on my university’s annual online trainings: modules on academic dishonesty, drug and alcohol policy, insurance and confidentiality. I turned on the TV as I half-heartedly began my yearly ritual, clicking through the insipid series of videos and quizzes.
As anyone who has completed similar “trainings” can attest, the least annoying ones allow users to skip to the end of the lesson, while the newer (and more savvy) modules omit this function, requiring a certain amount of time “in-session.” As of yet, the modules aren’t designed to tell whether you have the sound on, though, so I muted my computer until it was time for the quizzes—which were either ridiculously simple or could be taken an infinite number of times.
As I idly passed through the core requirements, I noticed that I was being redirected to another site, SafeColleges, this time for my “Active Shooter Training.” Although I must have completed this course during my previous years of medical school, it only now struck me as remarkable.
The training began with a bland statement about the routes of egress from major buildings should someone dangerous be spotted on campus, as well as the importance of the mass communication system in which all students had been enrolled. Every semester I get a text in all caps, “THIS IS A SYSTEM TEST…” reminding me that if an armed individual came to my school, I would receive a notice on my smartphone—and that data rates may apply. Yikes. “YES,” I dutifully respond each time. Message received.
But then the training got more ominous. The music and the lighting changed and three words appeared on the screen: “Run. Hide. Fight.” I sat upright and turned on the volume. How had I missed this before?
What followed was an unsettling reenactment of a workplace shooting. Sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, the video purported to offer viewers three “options for consideration” when responding to a shooter: Run, Hide, or Fight. What starts as a regular day at the office—a woman laments to her colleague, “Last night, as I closed my eyes, all I could see were slide decks”—turns quickly into anyone’s worst nightmare. Employees are shown demonstrating the three pillars in response to hearing gunshots: fleeing the office, hunkering down in a conference room, and, as a last resort, readying themselves to confront their assailant.
Much of the film was unnerving, including watching an older fellow resolutely arm himself with a tiny hammer or a young woman in a wheelchair, for whom running and fighting were largely impossible. Her colleagues might have to decide between escaping or staying behind to help her.
And yet, I was somehow bored. Despite the frightful subject matter, the video maintained an uninspired, bureaucratic tone. It was still a compulsory training, after all, so the narration was banal and the acting stilted (at one point, a man approaches a woman and awkwardly asks, “Hey, you got a minute to … uh … catch me up on … that thing?”). I felt guilty for rolling my eyes—I reminded myself that this was a video about murder—but the underlying pretense had been so thoroughly cloaked in a shell of inauthenticity and served in succession with other mind-numbing digital checkboxes that it was hard to not view the training as perfunctory, something else I simply had to endure.
I skated through the quiz, distractedly answering queries about the most appropriate three-pronged response to a shooter (was it Evacuate, Barricade, Confront or was it Run, Hide, Fight?) and true-false statements like, “Having situational awareness and being prepared for an active shooter event will increase a person’s chances of survival.” (Hint: it’s not a trick question!) After passing the assessment with flying colors, I briefly contemplated whether hiding behind an industrial printer would be effective at stopping a shower of machine gun fire, and then I closed the tab. I returned to my inbox, where I was greeted by a reminder for an upcoming dentist appointment and a survey from Spirit Airlines: Please rate your recent flight.
The following week, I asked my friends what they had thought of the training and was invariably met with one of two responses. Either they hadn’t noticed it, had been in a dissociative fugue for the duration of their annual recertifications, or they found it reasonable—sure the acting was a bit cheesy, they confessed, but wasn’t that to be expected?
What disturbed me in the days following my online training was not that I was upset, but exactly the opposite: how little I felt. Government statistics define a “mass shooting” as an event in which three or four or more individuals (excluding the shooter) are killed, so even though there were 27 school shootings this year, there have been “only” 14 mass school shootings since 1999—the most recent and second deadliest being the May 2022 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Nevertheless, starting with Columbine, these massacres have routinely sparked policy debates, gripped national media, and provoked outpourings of emotion. I remember crying when I learned of Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas; consoling friends after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh; choking up while playing “An American Elegy,” a piece composed in the wake of Columbine, in my high school orchestra. Why was I now bereft of emotion? How had moral outrage congealed into insouciance, numbness, even acceptance?
Thousands of schools, colleges, and workplaces use programs like the one I completed, often combining them with in-person courses, to prepare for the arrival of a gunman. ALICE, which is the largest and most successful of these for-profit ventures, boasts that it has trained over 18 million people on its eponymous platform, which is a cutesy acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.
Regardless of the purveyor, these trainings all share a common narrative—a shooter is coming and it’s up to you to stay alive—while engaging in a form of fantasy role play. Ready Houston’s video from 2012 opens with the lines, “It may feel like just another day at the office. But occasionally life feels more like an action movie than reality,” as it pans to a bald man in sunglasses who begins to blast people with a shotgun. The FBI’s video—which is slicker and more modern but nevertheless reverts to the same mantra of “Run, Hide, Fight”— encourages viewers to imagine themselves on a fun night out. After shots are fired at a lively bar, the actors turn to the camera, breaking the cinematic fourth wall, and say things like “Running makes you harder to hit and improves your chances of survival,” and “He’s applying direct pressure to the wound until we can find a tourniquet. In the meantime, turn off your phones and make a plan to defend yourself.” Another video from the FBI, titled Prepare to Survive, scans through a synagogue and suggests “if you must, empower yourself.” Then, highlighting a set of knives and frying pans, the video continues, “Find something to use as a weapon and don’t fight fair.” This sharing of experience mixed with imperative statements (hold my hand, we’re going to escape this massacre together!) seems central to much of the active shooter genre, if only because it is otherwise so difficult to prepare for such an event in real life.
Difficult, but not beyond attempt, as the leagues of workplaces that conduct in-person shooter drills can attest. At least 95 percent of public schools in the U.S. practice lockdown drills, in which elementary-aged students and high schoolers lock doors, turn off lights, and remain quiet while administrators go around banging on classrooms. This is rather tame compared to the elaborate mock-shootings many schools perform for the benefit of preparedness, using fake blood and blank rounds to simulate the “real deal.” Bafflingly, some of these drills are unannounced, so that students and teachers believe they are in a genuine life-or-death situation. As the president of the National Education Association, a major teachers’ union, said, “You have kids wetting their pants, you have kids crying, you have teachers crying and you have everyone saying, ‘this is it —I’m going to die.’ … And when it’s over, it’s like—just kidding!” (And I thought gym class was scary!)
Such drills have been rightly criticized and seem a far cry from my poorly-scripted and mostly boring online training. But in reality, they share a common ethos. Both approaches— drab online modules and ultra-realistic reenactments—promote a given: that mass shootings will happen. Whether sliding slaughter into bland corporate-style videos or injecting danger vividly into classrooms, we make violence and bloodshed fundamental and unavoidable. As the Department of Homeland Security training flatly states,
“Whenever you enter a building as an employee, guest, or customer, you must be prepared and know what it is you will do if faced with the worst-case scenario—even if it’s just another day at the office.”
Whenever I enter a building? In the last week alone, that includes a hospital, a research lab, a bank, several restaurants and coffee shops, a gym, and a concert hall. To be prepared for the worst-case scenario everywhere I go seems an atrocious fate. But steeper still is the price of ignoring my training—or so I’m told. What feels wrong about the mass shooting preparedness industry is this comfortableness with the worst-case scenario, the practicality it evinces, the way in which training to get shot at work, school, or church is made to seem so utterly normal.
The assumption implicit in all active shooter trainings is that these violent rampages will happen and may strike “anywhere at any time.” Indeed, for those who watch the news, it may seem obvious that public mass shootings are increasing in frequency and severity and can occur anywhere from playgrounds to nursing homes. This is surely distressing, and any honest and holistic assessment of the trend would raise two obvious questions: why do these shootings happen and how can we prevent them?
Yet the preparedness industry dodges both issues, accepting as foregone that shootings will continue to occur and that little can be done to predict them. Observing the seemingly endless spate of shootings in America over the last few decades, a columnist for the LA Times cracked that mass shootings are now part of American culture (and that was back in 2015!). I, too, find myself nauseated by how familiar I am with the typical response to this violence whenever it occurs: incredulity on the part of the victims, promises not to glorify the shooter’s name, conservatives calling for arming more civilians, liberals calling for gun control, conservatives bemoaning the Left’s attempts to politicize a tragedy, and reporters comfortably obtaining the sound bites we crave—as they have a dozen times before, from stoic sheriffs and weeping parents and psychologists to preachers and town mayors and jaded activists. Then, everyone moves on. And it happens again.
When faced with the same cycle of violence and lip service, people may naturally accept mass shootings as a kind of fate, a problem of the new millennium, like climate change or smartphone addiction, that we can at best hope to mitigate. As Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor at SUNY Oswego and proponent of lockdown drills, said to CNN:
“This is unfortunately a product of the time that we’re in, and we have to prepare our kids with these tools [lockdown drills] to stay safe. … I think that there is a belief that we can profile mass shooters or prevent them. … But the reality is that if somebody wants to harm you, they’re going to find a way.”
Schildkraut’s sentiment is widely accepted by the active shooter training industry, which has decidedly pivoted from preventing armed violence to responding to it, concluding as fact that harm will come to us all, one way or another. “The authorities are working hard to protect you and to protect our public spaces,” says the narrator of the Ready Houston video on surviving an active shooter. “But sometimes,” he continues, “bad people do bad things.” This glib narrative, reminiscent of children’s stories about bad guys who like doing bad stuff, moves the onus somewhere else, away from public discourse and political action. The good guys tried as hard as they could, but these things sometimes just happen.
But did we really try?
The framework espoused by the training industry precludes the possibility that maybe, actually, there was something that could have been done: reporting a colleague who made threatening remarks, or better yet, eliminating his access to firearms. If we could wave a magic wand and vanish away the nearly 400 million guns in this country (this is but a thought experiment, although New Zealand has tried as much) then there would be no mass shootings. In reality, this is politically unlikely in the U.S., where the disproportionately powerful gun lobby has galvanized support around perceived infringements on constitutional rights. Even though a bipartisan majority of Americans support basic gun legislation—like background checks for private sales and bans on assault weapons—enacting federal gun control of this kind has proven elusive. Such “common sense” approaches would make killing sprees harder to commit, and, if nothing more, could reduce the innumerable other deaths and injuries from firearms that, involving fewer than four victims at a time, are not categorized as mass shootings.
While legislation in this country has admittedly been scarce (House Democrats are trying to shore up support for an assault weapons ban, and last month a bipartisan “red flag” bill passed the House), it remains evident that guns are a necessary, although insufficient, prerequisite to mass killings. Studies over the last several decades have continually demonstrated that access to firearms is associated with increased suicide risk, with the largest analysis concluding that “people who owned handguns had rates of suicide that were nearly four times higher than people living in the same neighborhood who did not own handguns.” There is a much greater chance that someone will experience an accident, suicide, or homicide from a gun in their home than that it will be used in self-defense. Similarly, one can assume that mortal injury is more likely to be carried out by those with guns, not because they are necessarily more criminal, but because their tool is more fatal. Remove, or make less available, the fatal tool, and we might expect fewer deaths. Psychiatrist and sociologist Jonathan M. Metzl quantified this effect in his 2019 book Dying of Whiteness, concluding that lax gun laws enacted in the 2000s in Missouri (one of the most gun-friendly states in the nation) were responsible for the loss of over 10,500 productive years of life.
Some respond that would-be shooters are inordinately motivated, and would break gun control laws even if they existed. Again, this is a variant of the argument that bad guys do bad things. Not only is this logic circular—we only know they are bad after they have done something bad with a gun—it is, worse, defeatist. Since there are people motivated to kill, shouldn’t we at least try to stop them?
In training videos, shootings are portrayed as omnipresent threats without causality or predictability—as things that happen out of the blue—obviating any hope we might harbor around prevention. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on the “badness” of the “bad guys” renders these attacks fundamentally outside human control. These narratives matter, for they create the borders in which we operate, obscuring some realities and highlighting others. As Ann Mongoven insightfully argues:
“One entrenched family of metaphors that deserves critical debunking is a linguistic web implying this master-metaphor: gun violence is natural. If you don’t think that gun violence is natural, stop talking about it in terms of tragedies, incidents, and events. That is a metaphorical family that we use to describe natural disasters.
‘Tragedy’ conveys a sense of misfortune, the vicissitude of nature over and against the frailty of human mortality. While the term highlights the catastrophic consequences of mass shootings, it obscures their intentional nature. That intentional execution is further downplayed through the use of terms such as ‘incident’ or ‘event’ to describe shootings, language often applied to things outside of human control. To call a mass shooting a tragic incident is linguistically to pose it as inevitable.”
One of the central failings of active shooter training is this linguistic passivity in relation to abject violence and ambivalence toward intent. It may be uncomfortable to accept that some of our fellow humans want to kill us, but side-stepping that conversation or using euphemisms only handicaps our chance at preventing murder. Mongoven furthers:
“Ironically, the language of ‘tragedy’ is often paired with a metaphorical description of the shooter as ‘pure evil.’ Thus, the shooting is a natural disaster, while the assailant’s power is a diabolical force that breaks into the natural world. So mass murders are rendered both an act of God and an act of the Devil. The paradox spares us from thinking about the massacres as products of human culture, the shooters as neighbors raised in our communities, and the shootings as preventable.”
Although the conversations after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado may have been misguided in their exploration of violent video games and incendiary music (e.g., Marilyn Manson), they at least sought to answer the why question, proposing an exploration of the society and culture from which the murderers arose. Within that conversation is the theoretical possibility of change and action, either through legislation around guns or proactive approaches to adolescent mental distress. A popular GOP refrain, and one that has reemerged following the Uvalde shooting, is that “We cannot legislate away evil.” Nowadays, we are more likely to accept mass shootings as destiny, like the fates and furies of Greek mythology, something horrible that may strike us from without, and to which we are all but consigned.
Consider, for example, how often mass shootings are compared to natural disasters. Ready.gov lists “attacks in public places” alongside tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods, implicitly comparing a violent school rampage to events that follow inexorable patterns like tectonic shifts. (Similarly, FEMA— the organization infamous for its dismal Hurricane Katrina response—regularly directs trainings on active shooters.) Schildkraut, the proponent of lockdown drills cited earlier, makes this analogy explicit in her interview with CNN:
“We train students in the Midwest to deal with tornadoes, and we train students in the West to deal with earthquakes. Yet for some reason, we won’t do it for a manmade disaster, only for a natural disaster, which seems counterintuitive.”
On some level, this reasoning, which is couched as mature and realistic, is hard to argue against. As long as shootings keep happening, why not be prepared? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Why live in denial?
Many people who have been distraught over mass violence and at one time hoped for gun control, myself included, have felt this way, reckoning that as long as the country remains gridlocked we might as well prepare for calamity.
An apt analogy to this perspective is Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism, which proposes that capitalism has become so entrenched that it is impossible to contemplate its alternative—a sentiment often associated with the quip “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” As our society rushes to install bulletproof whiteboards, spends millions to curve hallways to make it harder to mow down children, as we contemplate stocking classrooms with tampons to staunch gunshot wounds or moving school completely online to avoid violence entirely—it is easier to imagine anything, even arming kindergarteners with assault weapons, than it is to imagine an end to school shootings.
“Kinder Guardians,” a ludicrous proposal from comedian Sacha Baron Cohen to do just that—arm children as young as 36 months with machine guns and grenade launchers—garnered support from several conservatives who opined, “The way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good kid with a gun.” Cohen’s scheme was ultimately satire, but is not much crazier than real life. Currently, the ALICE program teaches students to throw objects, like staplers, books, and hole punchers, at assailants and describes a “swarm” technique by which children can tackle a gunman (they note that “swarming” is only advised for sufficiently mature children at least 14 years of age). A teacher recounted the number of tragically desperate measures he and his colleagues were led to consider in order to debilitate a would-be shooter, including throwing marbles down the hallway so that the intruder might slip. These Tom and Jerry-esque hijinks are easy to laugh at, but they betray the underlying anxiety inherent in all preparedness culture: it’s up to you to save yourself.
Many of the training videos say this outright. ALICE reminds participants that police can take awhile and therefore professes, “You are responsible for your own survival.” “You can survive a mass shooting,” the FBI’s video proclaims, “if you’re prepared.”
The most pernicious element of the pragmatist school of thought is this cruel inversion: foisting responsibility for survival on the individual. In a drill conducted in Indiana, teachers were brutally reminded of this fact—that they could not count on governments or civil institutions or even the police to save them—as they were forced to kneel, were shot with rubber bullets “execution style,” and were told, “This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing.”
This ethic is a ghost of American individualism and our obsession with personal responsibility. It is a close cousin of the anxiety many of us face about recycling while industry continues to burn fossil fuels, or of saving money for the chance we become ill because the government is unable to enact a very popular program, Medicare for All. Many colleges offer informal courses on budgeting or how to live frugally on loans even though they are the ones putting students grotesquely in debt. We are told simply that this is the way the world is and we would do well to be practical, like voting for the moderate instead of the radical, or accepting a compromise bill over no legislation at all. These deals are ones we would be foolish to refuse. The modern energy-intense economy and the skyrocketing racket of college tuition and the entrenched web of lax gun laws are not going to be upended any time soon, we are told, so we might as well do our part and be prepared. Better something than nothing, right?
But what if diligently preparing for the worst case scenario makes unassailable the conditions that perpetuate the status quo? As Natalie Baker in the Brooklyn Rail contends, our “obsession with planning to harness the chaos of the future allows us to neglect what brings us to disaster in the first place—poverty, inequality, capitalism, colonialism and so on.”
In theory it’s possible to prepare for the worst while fighting equally vigorously for better conditions, like alleviating poverty, inequality, and creating safe public spaces. But in practice—and certainly when it comes to gun violence—this is rarely what happens. We point to tawdry trainings to expiate our guilt, to say “Look, we did something!” Some have appropriately called this “security theater,” a charade akin to pandemic temperature checks with inaccurate thermometers, or wiping down surfaces when the main mode of a virus’ spread is via aerosol. What is the point, if not to seem like we are taking action, especially when many of the additions to campuses and workplaces, like security cameras, are onetime upgrades without plans or budgets for maintenance or upkeep—and go on to sit unused or unrepaired?
“Two masked men wearing hoodies and wielding handguns burst into the Pine Eagle Charter School in this tiny rural community on Friday. [T]he gunmen headed into a meeting room full of teachers and opened fire. Someone figured out in a few seconds that the bullets were not drawing blood. [T]hey were blanks and the exercise was a drill, designed to test Pine Eagle’s preparation for an assault by ‘active shooters’ who were, in reality, members of the school staff. But those few seconds left everybody plenty scared. They weren’t expecting a drill like this, and they were caught by surprise when the two men entered and began firing.” — The Oregonian (2013)
In truth, measures like online videos and quizzes proliferate because they are tangible and quantifiable, can be used to abjure liability, and are saleable. On the other hand, the work necessary to make shootings less likely is complex, challenging, and not easily commercialized. As Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services (a school safety consulting firm) said:
“It’s harder to point to adults building relationships with kids; improved counseling and mental health support; regular planning and cross-training with first responders; diversified lockdown, evacuation, fire and other drills; and proactive communications strategy with parents and the community—all of which truly make schools safer.”
Trump’s for-profit company is, of course, trying to sell safety products to schools, and I disagree with his omission of gun control, but I am generally sympathetic to his perspective that preventing school violence requires integrated, long-lasting, and local changes. Most K-12 shooters are students from the school itself, so facilitating communication between parents, teachers, students, and mental crisis experts seems more successful than a one-size-fits-all, prepackaged training. And while I’m wary of arguing vaguely for “mental health support” as it has become a standard insincerity on the Right and a deflection away from gun control, I appreciate that this response is at least aimed at prevention, and, if undertaken earnestly, would alleviate vast swathes of suffering among teens, if nothing more.
By accepting gun violence as foregone, the training industry sustains a self-fulfilling prophecy: insisting there’s nothing we can do to stop these events means we never will. Nicole Hockley, whose child was killed at Sandy Hook, similarly expressed her discomfort with the preparedness industry: “It’s so much focus on imminent danger and what you do in the moment … as opposed to what you do to stop it from happening in the first place.”
Hockley advocates for gun control, but admits that if not politically feasible, there are other preventive measures she endorses—like an anonymous reporting system at schools. According to Jillian Peterson, a professor of criminology at Hamline University, 80 percent of school mass shooters threaten or leak their plans ahead of time, so a robust reporting system—and one that does not merely punish or expel students, but offers them crisis support—could catch violence before it occurs. Similarly, she notes that 80 percent of school mass shooters get their gun(s) from family members, mainly parents. While troubling, this fact implies that simple measures like expanded use of safes and locks at home could greatly reduce the likelihood of mass shootings (it would also be nice if the firearms inside the safes weren’t assault weapons, which have been used in the five deadliest mass shootings in our country, but that’s a separate point.) These are only two approaches, but they are laudable, if only because they attempt to forestall violence—and refuse to accept mass shootings as fate.
“[There is] evidence that active shooter drills in schools can deeply harm the mental and physical outcomes of students and the communities that support them.” — The Impact of Active Shooter Drills in Schools, Everytown For Gun Safety (2021)
Schopenhauer said that life was like a pendulum, swinging endlessly between boredom and pain. After enduring a pandemic quarantine I can say this is accurate, although it also describes the way we approach mass shootings. On the one hand, we consume dull training videos: bland, poorly-acted, and easy to tune out. The very nature of these videos and quizzes elaborates a narrative of unremarkableness—of something that must be done to maintain order, to prevent lawsuits, to be in compliance—and of inevitability, of disasters that can and will strike at random. On the other hand, we have panic-inducing lockdowns with students soiling themselves, preparing wills, and writing notes on their arms in case they perish in a school massacre; teachers, too, are traumatized by drills, occasionally injuring hips and developing PTSD. A study conducted by the Everytown research group, which monitored social media posts before and after active shooter drills, concluded that the simulations were associated with a 39 percent increase in depressive thoughts and a 42 percent increase in stress and anxiety.
No wonder young people are confused, torn between apathy and terror as we slowly normalize mass violence. As one teacher-in-training described, many children today remain worried about school violence, while others pay it no heed, accepting what may come with a nonchalance that is in some ways more unsettling than fear:
“I have some students who are completely unfazed. This is normal to them, and it scares me some days. They’re high schoolers, and many have accepted that it may one day be them, but are unshaken. Then I have the other half, and we have discussions about how to be safe and ways to find comfort in scary times. They’re paranoid and afraid. My heart is broken on either end of the scale.”
Reflecting on my own childhood, attending public school in Florida, I remember innumerable “Code Red” drills, in which we huddled silently in our classroom as the teacher bolted the door and turned off the lights. Occurring every quarter, these events became routine. Mimicking the rhythm and synchronicity of fire drills (the two perils were implicitly related), these exercises taught us to understand both fires and shootings as bland, unpredictable events that required an unemotional, orderly response.
I recall finding these drills innocuous as an 11-year-old, a reprieve from the monotony of class as I hid behind filing cabinets and cubbies and made faces at my friends. And yet, I can distinctly remember pausing, once or twice, to contemplate what it meant when we were told to huddle away from windows and cover our necks so as to avoid shards of glass that could nick a carotid artery. Thoughts of exsanguination were quickly diverted, though, by the banality and redundancy of the task at hand, by the same untroubled energy by which we ignore in-flight safety demonstrations, our nose buried in a book, headphones blocking out all sound.
“I can tell you personally, just as an educator, we were not okay [after drills]. We were in bathrooms crying, shaking, not sleeping for months. The consensus from my friends and peers is that we are not okay.” — K-12 teacher, quoted in The Impact of Active Shooter Drills in Schools
Let’s be very clear,” begins a blog post from Aegis, a company which sells training courses, security guards, and risk assessments for mass shootings. “This is not about being afraid. This is about being smart and being prepared.” The post, which focuses on Jewish synagogue security and refers directly to the 2022 hostage crisis in Colleyville, encourages all Jewish organizations to protect themselves with an “iron dome” of emergency plans and drills. The author further suggests that synagogues should conduct “pen tests” (short for penetration tests) in which “specialists” attempt to infiltrate the synagogue and observe congregants’ reactions in real time. Despite best efforts, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would not be afraid as mock gunmen stormed their house of worship, possibly unannounced, and simulated an act of terror. But being afraid, at least according to this blogger, would be silly. Simulations like these are but a practical necessity, a precaution only fools could ignore.
More than anything else, what has irked me about the active shooter industry (now worth $2.7 billion) are the dicta, like these, about how we ought to feel—particularly from people who are trying to sell us something. It’s often a smattering of sobriety and practicality—don’t be emotional, this is what you need to do—mixed with blatant fearmongering and pressure tactics—remember this recent tragedy, you wouldn’t want that to be you, would you? It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to be hawking bulletproof backpacks at an expo 10 miles from Disney World, all while cultivating an air of staid price-consciousness. As one salesman, who rents undercover special ops agents to schools (literally the plot of 21 Jump Street), explained:
“The beauty of it is it’s all for the price of a Netflix subscription, so it’s really hard to argue with me about ‘Well, it costs too much.’ You can’t tell me that.“
Yes, we probably can’t argue about price, although prudence is another matter. The active shooter industry wants us to be clear, cool, rational—detached from our emotions and realistic about mitigating, if never preventing, harm. And yet, they prey on temporary bouts of outrage and terror. I have held off on reciting statistics about gun violence, but think it’s worth mentioning that campus gun deaths remain incredibly rare. First, according to CNN’s interpretation of FBI data since 2000, on average five students or staff a year have died in mass shooter incidents at schools. That’s five out of 56 million students who are in the school system. The odds are higher that you will be struck by lightning. This is not to trivialize those deaths, but to offer an alternative narrative of the numbers, since we are so often beseeched to be “practical.”
Second, mass killings constitute only 1 percent of all homicides and happen overwhelmingly in private residences—meaning that our inordinate attention to mass murderers and perpetual securitization of public spaces may be largely misguided. Again, this is not to say that deaths from public mass killings don’t matter, or that gun control measures wouldn’t be important—they would probably curb much of the other 99 percent of homicides, too—but simply to say that if we are being “smart” we ought to give consideration to how resources are allocated holistically and in service of prevention. I’d wager, for example, that at the school with nearly $50 million dollars in curved hallway renovations, many students still hail from homes with loaded and unlocked guns and teachers are paid a pittance.
In other words, there’s good reason to question the heady march toward “hardening” schools, workplaces, and our entire culture—especially because there is scant evidence that armed security guards, metal detectors, or shooter trainings work. As much as these trainings do prepare students, their goals are undercut by the psychological toll they incur; students who watch training videos report feeling more prepared, but also much more afraid. This has led some, like James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern, to conclude that we’d be better off simply stating the protocol in case of a shooter, rather than going to lengths to simulate the occurrence. “There is no evidence that [an active shooter drill] prepares people any better than just instructing them verbally or in writing.” As such, we should demand empirical evidence from those peddling security features like iron cages, facial recognition software, or “pen tests,” if only because, once introduced, these measures are unlikely to ever go away.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be upset, either. Sometimes, emotionality is what drives genuine change. Perhaps to make the world a better place we have to be afraid, angry, indignant, or fired up. Many of our greatest triumphs in legislative action—on animal cruelty or child labor, for instance— were motivated in large part by our affective, visceral response to their horribleness. What made these campaigns meaningful was our aspiration to attain a society without injustice, to prevent bad things rather than resign ourselves to living with them. When it comes to school violence, it will take passion to agitate for more locks and firearm safety at home, robust and non punitive reporting systems in schools, improved crisis and mental health support, holistic resource allocation rather than one time upgrades, and, principally, a reduction in the quantity and lethality of guns available in this country. It’s hard to imagine any proactive change without fervor.
Fortunately, the world isn’t handed to us preformed, but is created anew each day. And as we have been reminded repeatedly, when confronted with adversity, we can respond in many ways: we can run, we can hide, or we can fight.