Covered in princesses – and bulletproof: Ballistic gear for civilians, and students

THE WASHINGTON POST – The bulletproof panels are designed to withstand multiple rounds from a handgun – and two of this season’s bestsellers are emblazoned with Disney princesses and Avengers superheroes.

“Here’s our demographic: parents with kids,” said Steve Naremore, founder of TuffyPacks, a Houston-based company that sells bulletproof backpack inserts. “It’s a real morbid niche.”

And a growing one: Sales have increased every year since 2016.

This is America in 2019, where mass shootings have become so commonplace that consumers are buying bulletproof backpacks, clipboards, even three-ring binder inserts, that they hope will protect them from gunfire. Retailers across the country say they have seen growing demand for bullet-resistant products for children – as well as for doctors, teachers, flight attendants and taxi drivers – giving rise to an industry of ballistic goods for everyday Americans, though there is little evidence the products are actually effective.

For the first time, Office Max and Office Depot have included bulletproof backpacks among their back-to-school offerings, while online retailers are marketing bulletproof whiteboards, chair cushions and kids’ puffer vests that tap into a growing sense of fear and helplessness.

Bulletproof backpack shields from Hardwire on display at the company in Pocomoke City, Maryland on August 7
One of 32 Emergency Response Shields hanging in the hallways of Pocomoke High School, made and donated to the school by local company Hardwire. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

“So many of the things we’re investing in today, whether it’s smart-home technology or protective backpacks, are about safety and security,” said Chief Retail Analyst Marshal Cohen for the market research firm NPD Group. “Every time we have one of these incidents, it’s a reminder of how just how vulnerable we are.”

As a result, bulletproof products have become a booming business that picks up every time a large-scale shooting rattles the nation. Recently, gunmen in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, killed at least 31 people and injured dozens more with military-style rifles.

Within hours, Leatherback Gear, which sells backpacks that convert into bulletproof vests, saw a 12-fold increase in sales. “It was all hands on deck all weekend,” said Brad de Geus, who founded the company with his brother three years ago. “Everybody’s fielding calls and emails.”

The company’s backpacks – named simply ‘civilian one’ and ‘tactical one’ – were designed by active-duty law enforcement officers and sell for USD330 to USD400. Demand has been so high, de Geus said, that the Costa Mesa, California, company is in the process of releasing two new styles, including a sporty model for USD280 and a smaller-sized children’s bag for USD100.

“It’s just like having a fire extinguisher or using a seat belt,” he said. “These are personal devices for life-threatening situations. It’s as simple as that.”

After months of deliberation, Raquel Donahue bought a bullet-resistant backpack insert for her six-year-old son. She and her son’s father, an Iraq War veteran, began discussing the idea last March after eight students and two teachers were killed in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, less than 50 miles from their home. After a mass shooting in El Paso on August 3 left 22 people dead, they decided it was time.

“We know it’s not a magical device, but he’s starting first grade and we want to feel a little better about putting him on a school bus each day,” said Donahue, 38, a librarian at Prairie View A&M University near Houston. “What we really need is gun reform. But our lawmakers are not moving at the speed parents need them to, so this is the best we can do.”

She went online and paid USD75 for a ballistic insert that her son’s grandmother will sew into his JanSport backpack.

Then came the hard part: Explaining the decision to her son. She told him that if a gunman came to his school, he could hold his backpack in front of his body for protection.

“But what if they shoot my hand?” he asked.

“I said, that would hurt a lot,” Donahue recalled. “But it’s better than them shooting you in the head or the heart.”

He was quiet for a moment. “Yes,” he finally agreed. “If I get shot in my hand, at least I won’t die.”