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.
"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 Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst 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. This month, 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 $330 to $400. 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 $280 and a smaller-sized children’s bag for $100.
"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."
Naremore, of TuffyPacks, began making backpack inserts three years ago after his daughter, a fourth-grade teacher in Dallas, told him about active-shooter drills at her school. About 95 percent of his business, he said, comes from parents.
He recently pulled branded inserts with Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes and Harry Potter decals from his site after Disney demanded he stop selling products with its characters on them. Naremore says he was using licensed fabric for those items, but "there's a stigma anytime you have 'bullets' and 'kids' in the same sentence."
After months of deliberation, Raquel Donahue bought a bullet-resistant backpack insert for her 6-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 Aug. 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 $75 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."
Sales have been steadily rising at Guard Dog Security in Sanford, Florida, which introduced its first ballistic backpack in 2013. This year it introduced a smaller version, that starts at $99 and is sold online by Walmart and Home Depot. It comes in hot pink and teal, and weighs 20 ounces, roughly the same as a water bottle.
"The primary goal was to make it lightweight for schoolchildren," said Yasir Sheikh, the company's president. "We've already sold out a few times this year."
The company's products - like virtually every bulletproof backpack on the market - are advertised as meeting "Ballistic Level IIIA" standards, which means they can withstand bullets from handguns and revolvers. They do not, however, guard against military-style variations such as the ones used in El Paso and Dayton. Furthermore, the products - which often are tested independently by the companies selling them - are not vetted by the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Justice Department that certifies body armor for law enforcement officers.
The institute "has never tested nor certified ballistic items, such as backpacks, blankets, or briefcases," Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said in a statement.
Academics who study mass shootings say there is little, if any, proof that bullet-resistant products make children safer. Instead, they say, schools and lawmakers should focus on preventing gun violence by banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"This is pure marketing to exploit fear," said Matthew Mayer, a professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on school violence prevention. "We have no evidence that these things work. They're giving kids and their parents a false sense of security."
Mass shootings, he added, "are fluid, rapidly developing, unpredictable events." The chances that a child would have such a backpack handy at precisely the right moment - and quickly calibrate the shooter's position and the bullets' potential trajectory to position backpack - is "something so beyond reality that it's just not logical."
Even so, demand for such products continues to grow. Though analysts do not have hard numbers yet, they estimate the market for bulletproof consumer gear is in the tens of millions of dollars. School security, meanwhile, has ballooned into a $2.7 billion-a-year business.
For years, the bulk of George Tunis's business came from the U.S. government and military. His company, Hardwire, created armor for bridges, police cars and tactical vehicles used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 children, Tunis - a father himself - shifted his focus.
"Sandy Hook was when we realized we had to put the armor inside," Tunis said. "No matter how fast the police get there, it's not enough. The people inside are the first responders. We've got to give them something."
He began making whiteboards that double as bullet-resistant shields, which he has installed at thousands of schools, hospitals, apartment buildings and restaurants. His clients include the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Seacrets, a popular nightclub and bar in Ocean City, where two-dozen bulletproof shields masquerade as vodka and rum ads.
"If you're responsible, you're going to protect yourself," said Tunis, who is based in Pocomoke City, Maryland. "I know there are naysayers, but if these products deter just one shooting, I'll take it."
The company also makes bulletproof inserts for backpacks that are particularly popular during back-to-school season and the Christmas holidays.
"Every year, it's the same: Parents buying shields for their sons and daughters, and for their children's teachers," Tunis said. "I hate to say it, but demand keeps growing, incident to incident."
John Drury, a truck driver in Cincinnati, decided to buy his 16-year-old son a ballistic backpack insert after the Dayton shooting, which occurred 30 miles from his home.
“These are scary times,” the 49-year-old said, adding that he thinks lawmakers should focus on mental health issues, not gun control. “But this backpack - well, it brings me a little peace of mind.”