Should you buy a 'bulletproof backpack' for kids? We tested their performance
In a sign of the times, 'bulletproof' backpacks for kids are now on some parents back-to-school shopping lists. Do they work? NorthJersey.com
Hawthorne Police Sgt. James W. Geier raised the muzzle of his Benelli M2 Tactical shotgun. He took a half-step forward, leaning into the big 12-gauge as he pressed its butt tightly against his right shoulder.
Then he squeezed the trigger, sending nine steel pellets at 1,325 feet per second toward a black backpack.
In North Jersey and across the nation, millions of children return to the classroom this week. And some will be equipped with a grim piece of back-to-school gear: bullet resistant backpacks.
All the focus on school safety, in the wake of multiple school shootings nationwide, left us at NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey asking: Do bullet resistant backpacks actually work?
Story continues below photo gallery.
Such bags have been available for years. But Interest spiked after the mass shooting this February in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and staff members dead.
“I first heard about these backpacks six months ago,” Hawthorne Police Chief Richard McAuliffe said on Wednesday.
The products range in price and complexity. Not all are for kids; some companies market them to commuting adults. The products start with plain bullet-resistant panels, which cost about $100 and can be inserted into regular backpacks. At the pricey end of the spectrum is the Leatherback Civilian One, which retails for $329.95.
It includes shoulder pads designed to function as tourniquets, or as body straps to pull wounded children from the line of fire.
That was not a sentence I ever imagined I’d write.
“It’s a shame that we have to consider this for our children,” McAuliffe said. “It used to be that we’d just worry about what they had for lunch.”
We took two popular, mid-priced bags to Hawthorne’s new police firing range to find out whether they actually stop bullets, as advertised. I’ll get to those test results in a minute.
I also asked experts in law enforcement, mass shootings and school safety whether they would buy bulletproof backpacks for their own children.
“I just don’t know if I would buy one,” said McAuliffe, who worries students might place more faith in a high-tech backpack than in teachers’ instructions during an emergency. “I think there is a possibility of a false hope.”
Matthew Mayer agrees. Mayer is a professor in Rutgers University’s education department who studies school shootings. He pointed to a public letter that promotes research by Dewey Cornell and Catherine Bradshaw at the University of Virginia, and was signed by thousands of experts in school safety and mental health. The letter urges communities to protect against school shootings by improving the emotional health of school communities.
The research makes no mention of high-tech backpacks.
“It’s false protection. It’s not going to prevent any school violence,” Mayer said. “We need a lot more attention on improving school climate. We want places where kids and teachers trust each other, and tell each other when something dangerous is going on.”
At the shooting range
Of course, there’s another way to debate the effectiveness of bulletproof backpacks: Fire a bunch of bullets into them. We purchased two models. One was the Tuffy BackPack, which sells on tuffypacks.com for $167. The other was a ProShield 2 by Guard Dog Security, which costs $190.
Each bag contains a shield made of synthetic fiber. Both manufacturers say their shields comply with Level IIIA standards for body armor, established by the National Institute of Justice. That means both backpacks should have enough stopping power to repel most handgun bullets.
With Chief McAuliffe’s blessing, Sgt. Geier agreed to test whether the backpacks live up to their manufacturers' promises. Geier serves as the top shooting instructor for the Hawthorne Police Department. He also supervises the department’s shooting range, which re-opened last month after an overhaul.
“I hope these things work,” McAuliffe said of the bags.
Geier started with a nine-millimeter Glock handgun. He aimed the gun, paused, then fired at each backpack, strapped to a wooden target.
The bullets pierced the external black fabric. They also punctured “Us Kids Know” and “Tragedy Plus Time,” two hardcover books chosen at random and stuffed into the backpacks.
Next, the bullets slammed into the synthetic fibers. Then they stopped. Geier found them lying at the bottom of the bags, crumpled into tooth-shaped lumps.
“Looks like that worked,” he said.
Geier next increased his firepower to a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. Both backpacks performed as advertised, crushing bullets into buttons.
“They both met the standard,” Geier said of the bags.
This was good news. Handguns are the most popular weapon used in mass shootings, according to a database of such attacks between 1982 and 2018 compiled by Mother Jones magazine.
Then he tested the Benelli M2 shotgun.
The pellets traveled 16 and a half feet through the air, then tore tiny holes in the pack’s outer shell. They continued through a pouch meant to carry pens, then pierced 24 thin layers of yellow Twaron, a synthetic fiber similar to Kevlar.
The pellets stopped only when they struck a sheet of nylon, which emerged bent and pockmarked.
“Looks like it put a big bulge in the Kevlar,” Geier said, reaching into the frayed backpack and feeling the damage with his fingers. “But it did stop it.”
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Next, Geier planned to test the pack against an even more powerful weapon, his Colt M4, an assault rifle similar to the AR-15s used in many mass shootings.
“You won’t even see the backpack move,” Geier said. “It’ll go through like a hot knife through butter.”
Geier took the M4 rifle in both hands. Both backpack companies say their products were not designed to protect a person from a weapon as powerful as an M4.
But unless you're an expert in firearms, this may not be obvious.
“All shields are tested to Level IIIA standards, making them one of the most impenetrable shields, stopping almost every type of bullet,” according to a description on tuffypacks.com.
The National Institute of Justice says the IIIA rating offers “(n)o rifle ammunition protection.”
Geier checked to make sure his rifle was loaded, the safety off. Then he fired. As he predicted, the backpacks barely moved. The long bullets passed right through the bags, landing behind the targets in a pile of sand.
Over the last 36 years, mass shooters have used rifles at least 70 times. Those attacks left 415 Americans dead.