With School Shootings Routine, Parents Turn To Bulletproof Backpacks, Child Clothing
WASHINGTON — The aftermath of school shootings is now all too familiar. The shock of the breaking news, the scenes of school evacuations, the ensuing political debate and the inevitable inaction. And for Ed Burke, the wave of new customers.
As CEO of the Massachusetts-based company Bullet Blocker, Burke sells one of the hotter goods in the body armor industry: bulletproof backpacks. And though he doesn’t revel in the fact that business tends to boom after school shootings, he sees his company as providing a service for increasingly nervous parents.
“Business is growing unfortunately due to all the things happening in the country,” Burke said.
The regularity of school shootings in America has set off a multi-directional reaction. Politicians have sought to respond with legislation. In some states, reforms have succeeded in passing. Federally, they have not, much to the chagrin of gun-control advocates.
“My biggest frustration so far is the fact that this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage,” President Barack Obama vented during a recent town hall hosted by Tumblr. “We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens.”
Where politics has failed, business has stepped in, taking advantage of legislative inertia.
Bullet Blocker’s co-founder, Joe Curran, built his first bulletproof backpack for his two kids after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. He realized the commercial potential, and began manufacturing backpacks and other school safety products for a wider audience. Today, Bullet Blocker produces iPad cases, notebooks, and school bag survival kits ($400 — advertised as a “great self contained kit to augment the reaction plans for school lock downs”).
The company has averaged 35 to 40 percent growth each year, Burke said. Last year, it grew by more than 50 percent. And when school shootings happen, like the one that took place last week in Oregon, interest spikes further.
“We had quite a few requests today,” said Burke, speaking hours after news of that shooting broke. “There is growing awareness of the violence that is happening in society. People say, ‘Geez this is happening all over, how do we protect ourselves?'”
Bullet Blocker’s advertisement for its bulletproof backpacks
The fortification of schools and students is no longer a function of the paranoid parent or the besieged school district. Dr. Christopher Robbins, an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, highlighted the movement in his 2008 book Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling. The security industry, he wrote, “cultivated a boom market” in the form of public schools.
“We don’t like kids getting shot, but we don’t do anything about gun control,” Robbins told The Huffington Post. “We look at what might be the most efficient fix or the most expedient fix, which might not be the most effective fix.
“The security industry is well-positioned to provide that fix,” Robbins added. “It becomes a self-repeating cycle. With each event, there’s some new proposal, there’s ever new technology.”
The bulletproof school supply industry hasn’t gone mainstream just yet. The majority of commerce takes place online, though several companies interviewed for this article said they were hoping to break into retail markets soon.
Kenneth Trump, president of the security consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, said that the market for these protective products is expanding with each new school shooting. However, he said, in his opinion the products aren’t particularly useful.
“I look at some of these bulletproof backpacks and wipe boards … how would this really work in the real world?” Trump said. “If you had a bulletproof backpack, would you need a bulletproof front-back, and bulletproof helmet, and a Captain America shield to go with it?”
Safety equipment manufacturers recognize that bulletproof backpacks are insufficient for that very reason — they can’t offer complete protection. But instead of downplaying their product, they’ve built others to supplement it.
Becky Xheka, the chief financial officer of security accessory maker Blue Stone Safety, said that her company has been selling bulletproof inserts rather than bulletproof bags, precisely because they are cheaper (thus can be purchased in multiples) and can be transferred to briefcases and binders.
Teachers, she said, store the Blue Stone inserts in their desks because they are prohibited from carrying weapons at school. A small panel a little bigger than a piece of copy paper starts at $115. A larger version costs $215.