Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Both of my children need new backpacks before school starts this fall. My daughter, who is starting the fifth grade, is due for a new Harry Potter bag. Only one of the zippers still works on her old one, and given how many books she likes to shove in there every morning, it’s a wonder it hasn’t disintegrated entirely. My son, who is heading into seventh grade, has only one working strap on his Avengers bag, and we’ve had to break out his Captain America replacement early. As the two of them embark on a new school year, I wish their need for new backpacks remains the biggest problem they face.
Here’s what I won’t be buying either of them: bulletproof backpacks. Sales have soared in the wake of mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio, and I can’t blame parents who are desperate to buy a little security. But even if we gave one to every child in America, it’s not going to solve anything. The problem isn’t the lack of Kevlar or an insufficient number of armed guards in schools. The problem is still that there are just too many guns.
Bulletproof backpacks, adding guards to schools, and active shooter drills are all forms of “security theater.” The phrase was coined by security expert Bruce Schneier to describe many of the safety measures implemented after 9/11. President George W. Bush deployed soldiers to patrol US airports, Schneier says, but their guns had no bullets. The goal was to make people feel safer rather than to stop future terrorists. So much of what we do in schools stems from the same sentiment – that we must do something to try to calm our worst fears, even if backpacks and active shooter drills don’t actually address the root of the problem. Security theater can distract us from real solutions. Even worse, it can sometimes make us more afraid.
Take active shooter drills. A whole generation of kids is being forced to imagine what they would do in the event a gunman enters their school – and many are being traumatized in the process. There is hardly any research on the efficacy of these drills, and there is mounting evidence that they can cause psychological harm. My own daughter, a child with a thriving imagination, has been doing these drills since she was in kindergarten and comes home stressed and afraid afterward. It becomes difficult to get her to talk about her day.
My son, who is autistic and has Down syndrome, responds to pressure or anxiety by sitting down and saying no. He’s a big, strong tween and won’t get up unless he wants to. And while he communicates beautifully (though usually not with words), he doesn’t respond well to adult stress. No active shooter drill is going to get him to cower silently in a closet while teachers panic. Nor is he going to hide his body behind a bulletproof backpack.
What will protect him, and my daughter, and all of us, is a society with fewer guns.
When a shooting broke out last week at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a 6-year old boy was killed while playing in a bounce house. We could respond to this tragedy by passing laws mandating that all bounce houses be made of bulletproof material, so children can take cover during shootings. But the sad truth is, we can’t bulletproof our way to security.
Instead of seeking narrow solutions based on the circumstances of the latest mass shooting, let’s work on shifting our thinking around firearms. They aren’t some sacred golden calf to which we all must pray. They are tools and should be treated as such: studied, regulated, licensed and insured, like cars, and subject to whatever legal systems can keep people safe and hold both owners and manufacturers responsible for improper use.
So, instead of buying bulletproof backpacks or trying to coat the world in Kevlar, let’s understand that we can’t arm or armor our way to safety. That’s just security theater. We need fewer guns.