Make My Day

12.08.12

All I Want For Christmas Is a Ballistic Shield

The latest high-tech gift for your college kid is a bulletproof backpack. But can they save lives? Eliza Shapiro reports.

Parents anxious about their child’s return to campus after Christmas break might consider an unorthodox gift this holiday season: a bulletproof backpack.

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(L) The J.Bullivant Solar Backpack shown with (R) Ballistic Shield ()

After a particularly deadly spate of shootings this summer, the ballistics backpack, first developed in the mid-2000s and built around a bulletproof shield, is getting an upgrade.

The latest military-grade backpack was released last week by Bullivant Urban Survival Gear, and was built to protect students from everything from a shooting to a dorm fire to a super storm—all while not embarrassing style-conscious college kids.

Todd Bullivant, who also owns MILSPRAY Military Technologies, which creates products for the U.S Military, has spent years dissecting the anatomy of a school shooting in designing his ballistics backpacks.

Imagine walking through campus and hearing gunshots: “There’s not a single student that will run towards the sound,” Bullivant says. “It’s just instinctual that you’ll turn around and run in the other direction, and in that case the shield is already between you and the shooter.”

And if a shooter enters a classroom, students can take their packs and hold them in front of their “kill zone,” says Bullivant, meaning their chest and torso.

Bullivant says the bulletproof panel was designed to deflect 95% of the weapons used in major mass shootings since 1991.

“If you used the shield during Columbine,” he says, “you might not have lived, but you would have stood a chance.”

The Student Series backpack, which includes a solar-powered generator and chargers for iPhones, iPads and laptops, costs $197 -- plus an additional $97 or $119 for the shield, depending on how heavy you like your ballistics panels.

But campus security experts say they’re not buying it.

“That sounds like just another toy to me,” says J.A Lasorsa, a security consultant whose website highlights a career in the Secret Service and bodyguards “fluent in Arabic, Spanish and Italian.” “The idea is not to have a bulletproof backpack. The idea is to eliminate the problem of violence from our midst.”

Other experts say it’s not clear students would have the forethought or time to shield themselves if they were actually confronted with a shooter on their campus or in their classroom.

Still, a few hundred dollars for the backpack—and the supposed peace of mind that comes with it—appears worthwhile for some parents, who manufacturers say are the niche industry’s main customers. Joe Curran, who started developing some of the first everyday bulletproof backpacks after the 1999 Columbine massacre, says business has been steadily good since he launched Bullet Blocker five years ago.

"We're trying to make them cool. We want kids to forget there's a ballistic panel in the bag."

Even as the company has expanded to develop bulletproof briefcases and pocketbooks for commuters, more than half of Curran’s business still comes from concerned parents buying backpacks for their grade-school or college kids. J. Bullivant says nearly 2,000 prospective customers signed up to be notified when the new packs went on sale.

Elise Oesterreich, a marketing major at Seton Hall University, tested the Bullivant pack out and found that her fellow students were interested in the bag mostly because it gave them the power to charge their dead cell phones on the go. “The students just didn’t see the use” in the ballistic shield, says Oesterreich. “But a lot of parents wanted to buy them for their kids—they were nervous.”  

Making the backpacks cool for already-ambivalent college students is no easy task, says Bullivant. “Our biggest interest is outsmarting the customer,” he says, “We’re trying to make what we do cool. We want kids to forget there’s a ballistic panel in the bag.”

The backpack comes in brown or black and is affixed with a gold plaque reading “J. Bullivant Urban Survival Gear.” In addition to the generator and chargers, the bag fits a pepper spray fog-creating can, water purification bottle, and hazard radio.

Harold Jones, a former Air Force pilot, says he passed along the backpack to fellow veterans. “This is a nice idea for us,” Jones says, “if you get into the wrong group, you can hold the shield out at arms’ length and protect almost your whole body.”

Still, some campus security consultants worry backpacks are just skimming the surface of a deeper problem. “The most challenging thing for college students is being aware of their environments,” says Richard Sem, a school safety consultant in Wisconsin. “College students are tuning out more and more with their phones. That counts much more than carrying around a bulletproof backpack.”