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Backpack sellers riding wave of fear, critics say

by ANNE D'INNOCENZIO The Associated Press | August 11, 2019 at 4:12 a.m.
A TuffyPack ballistic shield sits on top of a backpack it will be inserted into before a shooting demonstration at the Shiloh Shooting Range, Friday, August 9, 2019, in Houston. The company produces some bullet-resistant backpacks but the bulk of the business is in removable ballistic shields that are inserted in backpacks. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

NEW YORK -- Companies like Guard Dog Security, TuffyPacks and Bullet Blocker are peddling bullet-resistant backpacks for children in time for the back-to-school shopping season. But critics argue that they are using tragedy as a marketing opportunity and exploiting parents' worst fears.

Safety is high on the minds of many parents, especially after two back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 people dead last weekend.

"Times have changed," said Yasir Sheikh, founder and president of Skyline USA, which makes Guard Dog Security products like pepper spray and stun guns, and started offering bullet-resistant backpacks called ProShield Scout for children last year. "Our product is in response to that. It's a sad reality."

Sheikh said the bullet-resistant backpacks are popular and sold out several times after the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 people dead.

Steve Naremore founded Houston-based TuffyPacks in late 2015 after his daughter, a fourth-grade teacher, told him about the frequency of active shooting drills for her students. His company produces some bullet-resistant backpacks, but the bulk of his business is in removable ballistic shields that are inserted in backpacks.

Naremore said his backpacks could be the difference between suffering "lethal versus non-lethal" injuries.

"It acts as a defensive shield," said Naremore, noting that sales of the shields tripled in the days after last weekend's mass shooting at the Walmart store in El Paso that killed at least 22 people.

Some parents question the companies' motives.

"The only people enjoying it are the people selling the backpacks," says Ponnell Scroggins of Milwaukee, a father of six children, ages 3-14. "They're making plenty of money right now. And they're doing it off of something that was very unfortunate."

Some also cast doubt on the backpacks' safety and how much the items can actually protect children.

Guard Dog Security and TuffyPacks claim that their products are tested in independent labs in line with the standards for the National Institute of Justice and meet the requirements for a Level IIIA rating. That means the shields can thwart bullets from 9mm and .44 Magnum handguns. Naremore says it's like wearing a police vest.

But the National Institute of Justice -- the research, development and evaluation arm of the Department of Justice that comes up with the rating -- has never conducted tests on such products or certified them and therefore cannot vouch for them.

"Marketing that claims [National Institute of Justice] testing or certification for such products is false," said Mollie Timmons, a Justice Department spokesman.

The backpacks also don't protect against military-style weapons, which were used in several mass shootings, including at Parkland and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children and six educators in 2012.

Greg Shaffer, a former FBI agent and an expert in domestic terrorism, notes that the majority of active shooters use handguns. Nonetheless, bullet-resistant backpacks may not be effective because children often have to leave their backpacks in cubbies in homeroom, so they wouldn't have them with them if there were an active shooter.

Educational experts say bullet-resistant backpacks are not the solution.

"Schools should be safe sanctuaries where kids can feel secure, not hardened war zones where they're dressed like soldiers preparing for battle," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teacher's labor union, in an emailed statement. "If retailers are going to sell these products, they must also step up to demand real, effective solutions to gun violence, including tougher regulations on gun sales and buyback programs to help get illegal guns off the streets."

Information for this article was contributed by Martha Waggoner and Carrie Antlfinger of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/11/2019

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