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Front Page - Friday, August 9, 2019

Bulletproof backpacks show grim reality

This isn’t the back-to-school column I had in mind writing. That was derailed when I came across news like this, from Futurism.com:

“From Texas to Tennessee, Florida or Idaho, local news stations are reporting an uptick in the number of parents purchasing bulletproof backpacks for their kids in anticipation of the 2019 school year — a disheartening sign of how desperate parents are to keep their children safe as gun violence rages in American schools.’’

“Disheartening” is putting it mildly. And the backpacks aren’t hard to find online. According to an ad for one, “the Streetwise bullet resistant backpack offers NIJ Level IIIA  protects from most handgun calibers and comes in a kid-friendly style.”

Does that seem right to you? It seems wrong to me.

I don’t mean the syntax, though it could perhaps stand to have a hyphen for “bullet-resistant,” and it would make more sense if you read “protects” as “protection.”

Never mind that. I’m talking about the “kid-friendly style.”

True, the backpack is covered with those familiar little round smiley faces, some of them with tongues sticking out, some with eyes wide open, some with one eye winking, that sort of thing.

It also comes with a “Limited Lifetime Warranty,” which I hope is not intended as wry commentary. And it’s apparently sized to be appropriate for little folks. The ad has a picture of a girl who appears to be about 7 wearing one.

But I’d argue that nothing about body armor is kid-friendly.

“This Streetwise bulletproof children’s backpack ensures safety while providing normal utility, like any other school bag,” the ad says. “It stops nearly all handgun shots, including 9mm and .44 Magnum bullets. The bulletproof backpack can also protect from attacks with sharp or pointed weapons.”

I’ll come back to that claim in a little bit. First, a bit about the column I had in mind to write.

It was going to be based on two items of clothing that were must-haves in my middle-school days decades ago. First, in sixth grade, a plastic, pullover parka – rendered “parker,” in our misinformed lingo – with elastic at the wrists and a zippered pocket in front.

Then, in seventh, a “parker” of a different sort that zipped all the way down the front, also with elastic at the wrists, but made of cloth. And not just any cloth. Madras.

Ideally, the column would have inspired other relics like me to amble down Nostalgia Lane and reflect on things they had to have for school. Plaid bell-bottoms, maybe. Personalized pencils. Beatles lunchboxes. Whatever.

And I’d contrast that with whatever sort of items are considered must-haves for the current crop of students. Personal drones to carry their books? Motorized shoes? Signature theme music to play when they arrive on campus?

Instead, I came across kid-friendly bulletproof backpacks.

Which brings me back to that claim that the Streetwise “stops nearly all handgun shots.” The second picture of that little girl, by the way, has her sitting cross-legged on a floor, holding up her smiley-faced backpack as a shield.

Here’s the thing: Mass shooters don’t always restrict their weaponry to handguns.  The one who killed 17 students and staff members and wounded 17 others at a high school in Parkland, Florida, for instance, used an AR-15-style weapon.

He is not the only one to have used such a rifle, but I mention him because he apparently helped inspire the current market for kid-friendly armor.

According to a recent article in The Houston Chronicle, “Roman Zrazhevskiy with ReadyToGoSurvival.com out of Austin says his website sees a 250% increase in sales of bulletproof backpacks when back-to-school time rolls around.”

Limited, obviously, to parents who can afford it. The Streetwise sells for $120. I gather that some models cost considerably more.

All in all, it seems a feeble response to gun violence. But I guess you can’t blame parents for trying something, anything, to protect their children. Otherwise, they may just end up with thoughts and prayers.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.