In an age where mass shootings have become commonplace, companies are offering a different take on school safety: bulletproof backpacks.
Two Oregon companies are among several U.S. retailers selling ballistic backpacks or backpack inserts. Aside from corporate retailers like Office Depot, Walmart and Home Depot, which offer the specialty bags for purchase online, PDM Self Defense, an Aloha-based online retailer, is offering "campus safety" ballistic backpacks in three different colors. The bags are manufactured by Guard Dog Security, a company recently featured on national news outlets for its bulletproof backpacks. In Salem, martial arts studio Armor Combat Systems also sells ballistic inserts and backpacks made with Kevlar.
The company calls its armored bags "back to school ready."
Guard Dog Security, based in Sanford, Florida, is one of the leading manufacturers of the products. It is one of at least three online retailers that say its sales of bulletproof backpacks have spiked, following three mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Guard Dog first debuted its bulletproof bags in 2013. Since then, they've seen a year-over-year increase in sales, said Yasir Sheikh, the company's president.
"We started back in 2013," Sheikh said. "That was shortly after Sandy Hook. We were doing other personal security products at the time. We were getting a lot of requests for (protective devices) for potential active shooters. I tried to think about what makes sense ... We landed on the bulletproof backpacks."
Guard Dog's backpacks come in different prints and colors, from hot pink to teal, and an updated twist on the standard camouflage print. The bags retail for $120 to $300, with a portion of the bulletproof backpack sales going toward a "Make Our Schools Safe" campaign.
Houston-based TuffyPacks LLC also sells a ballistic shield insert for backpacks, with an online tip sheet for parents titled "Tips for keeping your child safe in an active shooter incident at school."
Sheikh said his products have been embraced by parents who lost children to mass shootings. They're tested by an independent, Oregon-based ballistics company, according to the Guard Dog president.
Despite the demand for his company's products, not every parent is keen on the idea.
"It's a sad testament to our times that a product like that would have to be marketed and sold," said Jason Henshaw, a Portland parent with two children in Astor K-8 School.
Henshaw said he's not sure he'd spring for the bags, but admits that gun violence in public places is "in the background of everybody's mind. "
Hillary Uhlig, the Oregon chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said her group advocates for change, but this isn't what they had in mind.
"It's a product that shouldn't exist," said Uhlig, who lives in Washington County. "Instead of assuming a backpack will save their lives, we are marching to ... pass laws that will prevent gun violence in the first place. I think it is horrible that as a nation we're asking children to stand up to gunmen."
Moms Demand Action is an advocacy group with chapters across the country. The organization pushes for federal background checks on all gun sales, while reaching out to community leaders and civic groups about how to have everyday conversations about responsible firearm storage and child safety.
"We need our lawmakers to stand up and take action so that our kids don't have to," Uhlig said.
Earlier this year, Oregon legislators attempted to pass a series of amendments to tighten gun control laws with the introduction of Senate Bill 978. The bill would have, among other things, allowed gun retailers and dealers to implement higher age restrictions on gun purchases; clamped down on firearm storage rules and transfers; and given broader authority to municipalities to restrict firearms in public buildings.
Late in the session, Gov. Kate Brown and Senate Democrats traded away that bill, and one on childhood vaccinations, in exchange for Oregon Republican votes on a sweeping new funding package for public schools.
Even Sheikh admits a hint of discomfort about the idea behind the backpacks.
"When I first introduced the backpack, I never thought about it only being worn by kids," Sheikh said.
"It is alarming. I'm a father of two. Of course I think about the safety and security of my children when they start going to school. It's disheartening, but if we're able to provide security, protection and peace of mind, then it makes this all worth it."
Inventory difficult to find on store shelves
While several companies advertise bulletproof backpacks for sale online, finding them in a storefront may be more difficult.
Most companies, including Washington County-based PDM, advertise the backpacks for sale online only. A representative with PDM declined to answer questions about whether they had any backpacks in stock.
An Office Depot store on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Portland confirmed the store sells ballistic backpacks online. Home Depot stores also offer bulletproof packs for purchase via the company's website, with an in-store pick-up option.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.